37 Dirty Medieval Manuscripts That Prove People In The Middle Ages Weren’t So Prudish After All

Published November 28, 2022

Many of these raunchy images were drawn by bored scribes who were tired of copying out books by hand — and wanted to leave a profane surprise for readers.

Mixed Up Man
Bird With Two People
Man Getting Shot In The Butt
Disembodied Penis
37 Dirty Medieval Manuscripts That Prove People In The Middle Ages Weren’t So Prudish After All
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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

Medieval Marginalia

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.

After looking through these dirty medieval manuscripts, learn about some of the strangest customs from medieval times. Then, read about the most terrifying torture devices from the Middle Ages.

Kaleena Fraga
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 dual degree in American History and French.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "37 Dirty Medieval Manuscripts That Prove People In The Middle Ages Weren’t So Prudish After All." AllThatsInteresting.com, November 28, 2022, https://allthatsinteresting.com/dirty-medieval-manuscripts. Accessed June 16, 2024.