And if you liked this post, be sure to check out these popular posts:
1 of 38
A mixed-up man, drawn circa 1260.The Rutland Psalter
2 of 38
Two people and a bird seem oddly entangled in this medieval doodle.Marguerite's Hours
3 of 38
Here, a human-like creature holds what appears to be his fin in the air as a monster shoots him with an arrow in the rear end. Circa 1260.The Rutland Psalter
4 of 38
This disembodied penis is a shocking example of marginalia — or doodles in the margins — in medieval manuscripts. Glasgow University Library
5 of 38
This medieval drawing also has penis imagery, with the appendage balanced on the head of a dragon. Pontifical, Avignon ca. 1330-1340. Tours, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. Diocèse 8, fol. 59r
6 of 38
A depiction of Alexander the Great's mother in bed with an exiled pharaoh — Nectanebo, who is disguised as a dragon — as her husband, King Philip, watches from afar.
This illustration, from circa 1468-1475, suggested that Alexander the Great had unusual origins that made him into a legendary conqueror.History of Alexander the Great (Les faize d'Alexandre)
7 of 38
This illustration appears to show a person with jumbled-up anatomy. Circa 1325-1340. British Library
8 of 38
Here, a nude bishop appears to chastise a farting (or pooping) cleric. Circa 1310-1324.British Library
9 of 38
A stomach-curdling illustration from a medieval medical book. Circa 1425-1450.Mirror of Phlebotomy & Practice of Surgery/Glasgow University Library
10 of 38
A man chops up another man in this strange illustration — who seems to bear an unsettling resemblance to himself.Public Domain
11 of 38
In this bizarre medieval illustration, a small man seems to be dragged from a woman's mouth by a bird-like monster.Matfre Ermengau/Breviari d'amor
12 of 38
A 14th-century depiction of the circumcision of the Biblical figure Abraham.Bible of Jean de Sy
13 of 38
This 12th-century illustration shows a doctor operating on a man with hemorrhoids.The MacKinney Collection of Medieval Medical Illustrations
14 of 38
This illustration shows a legendary creature called a bonasus. The famed Roman author Pliny the Elder once wrote that this beast "sends forth its excrements, sometimes to a distance of even three jugera; the contact of which burns those who pursue the animal, just like a kind of fire."Wikimedia Commons
15 of 38
This 14th-century illustration looks normal enough, until you notice the man in the margin. Vows of the Peacock
16 of 38
In this bewildering illustration, a woman appears to be picking penises from a tree.Roman de la Rose/Bibliothèque nationale de France
17 of 38
In this medical illustration from circa 1425, a man appears to be defecating blood. John Arderne, De arte phisicali et de cirurgia
18 of 38
In this illustration from circa 1300, a man holding a cross stands on a demon.Book of Hours
19 of 38
This Bohemian illustration seems to show a knight throwing a man and a demon into a monster's mouth. Circa 1490-1510.Antithesis Christi et Antichristi/Jena Codex
20 of 38
Here, two women lie in bed as a man bleeds from his genitals nearby them.Public Domain
21 of 38
This medieval illustration shows a man riding a horse upside down, and holding on to a trumpet. However, some historians have noted that trumpets were sometimes added later in images like these, so it's possible that the instrument wasn't originally included in the drawing.Froissart’s Chronicles
22 of 38
A man appears to be undergoing a medical procedure in this illustration.Glasgow University Library
23 of 38
A number of demons discuss something in this medieval illustration.Bavarian State Library
24 of 38
A closer look at this page reveals an eyeful of an illustration in the upper left-hand corner.British Library
25 of 38
A "sea monster," drawn in the mid-15th century.Le Miroir du Monde
26 of 38
Two headless men face each other in this illustration from circa 1302-1303.Breviary of Renaud de Bar
27 of 38
Two men appear to kiss while riding camels in this Syrian illustration from circa 1240. Maqamat al-Hariri (Maqāma 32)
28 of 38
Wild animals appear to battle each other in this image from circa 1302–1303.Breviary of Renaud
29 of 38
Here, a wolf with large testicles gives itself a sniff.Public Domain
30 of 38
A woman holds up her hands as a man appears to bleed from his anus in this illustration from circa 1338-1344. Roman d’Alexandre, Tournai
31 of 38
A woman pulls a man back into bed in this image from circa 1401-1425.Le livre de Lancelot du Lac
32 of 38
A woman drives a stake through a man's head.Public Domain
33 of 38
A woman appears to sit on a nest filled with eggs.Public Domain
34 of 38
A woman lies in bed with a demon in this illustration from circa 1450-1455.Histoire de Merlin
35 of 38
A man and a woman strike an unusual pose in this illustration from the 15th century.Book of Hours
36 of 38
A woman appears to ride a demon shaped like a phallus in this illustration from circa 1340-1345.Decretum Gratiani
37 of 38
This musician is riding an animal that appears to have a face where its rear end should be.Public Domain
37 Dirty Medieval Manuscripts That Prove People In The Middle Ages Weren’t So Prudish After All
It's easy to think of the Middle Ages as a stiff and unsmiling era. But flipping through medieval manuscripts will quickly prove the opposite, as their pages are packed with raunchy drawings and sexual humor.
Some images are central to a manuscript's story — like a 15th-century depiction of Alexander the Great's conception that involves a dragon and a cuckolded husband. Others, scribbled masterfully in the margins of manuscripts, depict everything from penis trees to fart jokes.
And while certain images played an obvious purpose, especially in medical or religious texts, others have left historians scratching their heads.
The "Marginalia" In Medieval Manuscripts
Dragon's tails and severed legs on the pages of the Rutland Psalter, c. 1260. (British Library Royal MS 62925, f. 98r.)A drawing like this may seem nonsensical today, but it tells an important story about life in the Middle Ages.
While some images in the gallery above depict religious or medical scenes, like the circumcision of the Biblical figure Abraham or a medieval treatment for hemorrhoids, many of the most fascinating drawings come from the margins of the texts. These doodles, called marginalia, depict defecating monks, people with mixed-up anatomy, and plenty of phalluses.
Bizarrely, images like these are often cheek-to-jowl with religious texts.
"From a modern perspective, it can be difficult to understand how sacred text and bawdy images could exist side by side, especially given our preconceived notions about the uptight religious fervor of the age," Kaitlin Manning, an associate at B & L Rootenberg Rare Books and Manuscripts, told Collectors Weekly. "But I think marginalia helps us recognize that medieval society was as complex as our own."
She explained that marginalia reached its peak between the 12th and 14th centuries, before the invention of the printing press. Then, scribes in monasteries — often located in France and England — painstakingly copied out books. And sometimes, they left notes of their own.
As Gizmodo explains, scribes also left complaints about their work like "I am very cold," or "Oh, my hand," or the more colorful "Now I've written the whole thing: for Christ's sake give me a drink."
And they sometimes went beyond notes. Scribes doodled cartoons of people having sex, farting, cavorting with demons, or fighting while headless.
"In the context of medieval illuminated manuscripts, the kinds of images that occur in the margins are pretty astonishing," Manning explained. "Imagination is allowed much freer rein in the margins of a book; it's allowed to run amok. So monsters or human-monster hybrids, animals behaving as humans, and fart jokes were all fair game."
But even though these images were dismissed for centuries as monks just having fun on the job, recent scholarship has suggested that marginalia can actually offer valuable insights into the Middle Ages.
"The prevailing view for most of the 19th and 20th centuries was that marginalia was nonsensical, unserious, profane, and had nothing to do with the sacred images it surrounded," Manning said. "It was only relatively recently... that marginalia became viewed as a genre worthy of study."
This view is seconded by Johanna Green, a lecturer in Book History and Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow.
"Manuscripts can be seen as time capsules," she told Atlas Obscura. "And marginalia provide layers of information as to the various human hands that have shaped their form and content... [Doodles and notes] tell us huge amounts about a book's history and the people who have contributed to it, from creation to the present day."
In the gallery above, you can see some of the most memorable examples of marginalia from the Middle Ages, including some surprisingly raunchy images that might even make some people blush today.
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a double degree in American History and French.