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NOTHING LESS

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Gold mine of cheeky medieval doodles show ancestors just as silly as us

By Jake Wallis Simons, for CNN
updated 10:00 AM EST, Mon November 3, 2014
They survived for so long partially because they were made of parchment, which lasts far longer than paper. They survived for so long partially because they were made of parchment, which lasts far longer than paper.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Doodles from 700 years ago feel like they were drawn yesterday
  • Rare “stowaway” manuscripts are found hidden in medieval book bindings
  • Modern scholars are able to learn new things about the medieval period

(CNN) — My personal favorite is this. At the top of a page of angular medieval text — full of theological extrapolations and religious devotion — is a cartoon of a deadpan dog.

“It’s amazing to think that people doodled in medieval times in a similar way to how they doodle today,” says Dr Erik Kwakkel, a book historian at Leiden University, Holland.

“When you see the monks expressing their personalities, their sense of humor, it makes you feel like you’re traveling back through time. It’s like you’re going through the keyhole and sitting right next to them.”

Indeed, that dog would not be out of place in The Simpsons.

READ: The spacesuit inspired by medieval armor

It makes you feel like you’re traveling back through time.
Dr Erik Kwakkel, book historian, Leiden University, Holland

‘Medieval eye candy’

Dr Kwakkel is making an unlikely name for himself on the internet by posting “medieval eye candy” that he comes across during the course of his research.

And the doodles are by far the most popular.

“Normally, scribes would doodle or write snatches of lettering after cutting their nibs, to make sure they were the correct width,” he says.

“These pen-tests ranged from the sort of scribbled lines that people still do today to words, names, full sentences, or simple drawings. Sometimes we even find pretty good drawings.”

These include funny faces with long beards, big hats or noses, as well as animals, unidentifiable creatures, and even caricatures of teachers and colleagues.

In the majority of cases, the doodles were never intended to be seen. They were drawn on the outside of the first and last pages of a book, which were later glued to wooden covers.

But although the glue has obliterated a great many doodles and pen-tests, a variety has survived the test of time.

“They offer a rare glimpse into the informal or private world of medieval monks,” says Dr Kwakkel.

“Personally, I love the thumbprint, which was left by a careless scribe who spilled ink on his work. It seems so fresh and human, yet it happened 700 years ago.”

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