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Medieval monks complained about their jobs in the margins of ancient manuscripts

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Medieval monks were the bored data entry workers of their day, spending hours copying manuscripts in uncomfortable chairs and cold rooms. To keep themselves entertained, they often made little doodles or silly comments in the margins of manuscripts they were copying. In the new issue of Lapham's Quarterly, author Colin Dickey explains these expostulations:

With their bitchy complaints-"I am very cold," "Oh, my hand"-they insert themselves into the holy texts and often, in the process, disrupt the sanctity of the words they're supposedly copying: "Now I've written the whole thing: for Christ's sake give me a drink."

These lovely and lively interjections represent just a small range of expression that one finds throughout medieval manuscripts. And as Michael Camille documents in Images on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art, it is in these marginal comments that we learn as much-if not more-about the medieval world as we do from the texts themselves. Marginalia might include comments like the ones from our miserable monks, but also an entire free-flowing range of artistic flourishes and doodles that make up the edges of medieval manuscripts.


Here is a batch of the best marginal notes, gathered in Lapham's Quarterly (click to enlarge). I love how they read like text messages or tweets from people who are bored at work. The pithy quip never goes out of style — especially when it pokes fun at dreary office work. Read more about these marginal moments of subversion at Lapham's Quarterly.


(Spotted on Brain Pickings)