Beasts and Babewyns

I first encountered the word babewyn in the late Michael Camille’s  Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art, wherein Camille explores what medieval illuminators and scribes were up to with all that tomfoolery in the margins. The term babewyn–nicely encapsulated by Camille’s translation “monkey-business”–covers the wide range of playfulness (and occasional visual commentary) that one sometimes finds in medieval manuscripts (12). From the trope of knights fighting snails to monkeys dressed as bishops, from organ-playing rabbits to badly behaving monks, medieval marginalia ranges from the fanciful to the vulgar. I am both frivolous and honest enough to admit that I would have taken my studies of paleography far, far more seriously had my professor included babewyns alongside the Beneventan script she so devoutly worshiped. Alas, she was deeply earnest and I never have been.

BL MS 49622 f. 107r

Knight vs. Snail, BL MS 49622 107r

While manuscript scholars would no doubt take umbrage at my referring to the glories of medieval marginalia as doodling, I cannot help but wonder if the impulse behind much marginalia is not the same as that impulse which led cavemen to paint on walls. Perhaps among the pre-historic images and squiggles over which scholars pour, there are bits that simply mean, “Glod bored out of mind. When rain stop?” Or, “Mog invent committee. Glod kill Mog.” What about some of the more puzzling Egyptian hieroglyphs? Might not some inscrutable passage have a similar origin? Imagine some poor bugger of a stone carver staring in despair at the blank wall before him while two priests argue theology (or worse still, liturgy).

“Phukdat, I many times do I have to tell you, orthodoxy requires a reed before the horned viper. If you put the horned viper before the water squiggle without the reed, Osiris will not bless the Nile!”

“It means nothing of the sort, Thikhut. The reed symbol is phallic and oppressive. We should write a new prayer–“


The poor stone carver starts chinking away just to pass the time while the priests try to stuff each other into canopic jars. Thus, out of sheer boredom was born the solitary occurrence of a dog-headed bird, an image that launched a handful of obscure doctoral dissertations and one very idiosyncratic cult. (Totally making that up. Too bad, eh?)

BL Arundel MS 60, f. 7r

To return to the Middle Ages–as all sensible people must–sometimes the stuff in the margins is logical and obviously illustrative. Vide, the astrological figure found in the liturgical calendar (to the right), or the bird tolling the bell on the first page of instructions for an Office of the Dead (below).

BL MS 21926 f. 208v

BL MS 21926 f. 208v


If the term babewyn, from which we get our word baboons, was originally related to the monkeys that occasionally showed up in the margins mocking the action of the text, monkeys were certainly not the only creatures called upon to strut their marginal stuff. So, one finds  in the Gorleston Psalter a fox-bear creature dressed as a bishop preaching to a congregation of excited ducks (folio 47r). Other times, the creatures are as fantastical as the chimères and gargoyles of architecture, and much as I love the gastropod “shake-down” of  the knightly class and the ecclesiastical menagerie, the more fabulous creatures are the ones to which I feel a doodling kinship. Take for instance, this rogues gallery from the Gorleston MS 49622:

If I came to the term babewyn late, I came to the practice much earlier. I have always been an inveterate doodler. Let there be no mistake. I am no artist. I make no claims to either talent or skill. Nevertheless, the tradition of doodling in the margins of books, class note, meeting agendæ, and whatnot is one I know of old. Many is the time I’ve wished I had my math homework from seventh grade, the year in which I officially gave up on mathematics. While it was a bitter parting with no love lost on either side, my frustration gave rise to a whole pantheon of fantastical creatures. Some were gnome-like fellows not unlike the little “gryllus” I would find years later in the margins of medieval manuscripts (e.g. the beturbaned little fellow below).  Others were multi-headed monsters which embodied the Scylla and Charybdis that was life in junior high.

BL MS 21926 f. 26r

BL MS 21926 f. 26r

Whereas doodles from meetings reflect the Escher-like reality of the moment, the doodles from long layovers in international airports have begun over the last years to incline toward the tradition of the medieval bestiary. Admittedly, the short, explanatory notes which now accompany the doodles verge more toward the “field notes”end of the spectrum rather than the moralizing natural history of a true bestiary. Nevertheless, I feel a kinship there.

One of my favorite bestiaries is the magnificent, late sixteenth-century Aberdeen Bestiary, and if you look at the image below of the elephant below having a really, really bad day, you can undoubtedly see why. If you want to lose yourself in some beautiful illumination and some fascinating reading, follow the link to the Aberdeen Bestiary and read about the nature and kinds of snakes, or scroll around and read up on the habits of hedgehogs or the virtues of newts. Ever heard of a monceros? You can remedy that lamentable ignorance by reading up folio 15r (head of stag, body of a horse, and feet like an elephant. The final parts of the bestiary explain the “parts of man” as well as explaining the virtues and powers of various stones from run-of-the-mill chalcedony to thunder stones. You read that correctly, thunder stones. (Eat your heart out Avengers.)

Aberdeen Bestiary, MS 24 f. 65v

Aberdeen, De Serpentibus

In the spirit that marginalia is its own reward, I will in the coming weeks offer up a doodle or two. In the meantime, if you’re curious about the tradition of knights versus snails, visit the British Library’s delightful Medieval Manuscripts Blog.

Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (London: Reaktion Books, 1992. 12-13)


One thought on “Beasts and Babewyns

  1. Pingback: A Bouquet of Dragons | Trapped in the Scriptorium

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