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Nerd Candy: Doodles in Medieval Manuscripts

Carpentras, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 368, via Erik Kwakkel.

I loved medieval graffiti, and now I find out that there are medieval doodles, too! What more could a history nerd want?

I just came across an article on Colossal (a very cool site, by the way, so be sure to follow it) about some work being done by Erik Kwakkel, a manuscript historian at Leiden University. Kwakkel is cataloging and studying “pen trials” – little tests or warm-ups done by scribes in the margins of manuscripts they were writing, as well as doodles done by books’ readers at various dates after the books’ creation.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 111 I, 14th-century doodle, via Erik Kwakkel.

Browsing through the gallery of doodles in the article and on Kwakkel’s tumblr, I am struck by the universality of these images. Many of them look as though they could have been made centuries ago… or yesterday. While the many stylistic changes constantly occurring in most forms of art often allow scholars to date works based on visual analysis, doodling appears to have stayed much the same over the centuries. I really love the idea that the drawings I (hypothetically) make in boring meetings would fit in so well next to those made by a fourteenth-century university student in a textbook. It feels as though I am connected across time to those readers in some way.

Kansas University, Kenneth Spencer Library, MS C54 (15th century) via Erik Kwakkel.

Professor Kwakkel just started a terrific blog, medievalbooks.nl, about all aspects of medieval manuscripts. His posts have awesome titles like “Medieval Selfies” and “Hugging a Medieval Book”. He has also been interviewed and published on several other websites and runs tumblr and twitter accounts, which he uses as “means to share the beauty and relevance of medieval books with a broad audience beyond just academics” (source). That sounds like quite a worthy goal to me.

Conches, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 7 (main text 13th century, doodle 14th or 15th century) via Erik Kwakkel.

Bonus: Kwakkel was featured in a BuzzFeed article entitled “8 Book Historians, Curators, Specialists, And Librarians Who are Killing It Online“. The other seven are equally worth checking out.

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