Marriage in the Margins: Romantic Frolics in Medieval Manuscripts

I’ve not updated my blog for a while, partially due to teaching and partially because I’ve been keeping my head down, working hard, and not having too many original thoughts. However, I’m not teaching this term and am, instead, concentrating on research. Active research means productive procrastination. Productive procrastination, for me, means scrolling through interesting manuscript illuminations in such goldmines as Discarding Images, and the BL’s wonderful Manuscripts Blog. My ultimate favourite for open source, eye-pleasing, medieval imagery has to be the Walters Art Museum’s Illuminated Manuscripts Flickr stream. The Walters Museum unselfishly shares its collection of manuscripts for the world to see, in the process creating endless possibilities for the passing of time.

Idly browsing the collection on a tea break, I found this wonderful image of a man and wife cooking, in Walters Manuscript W.88, a fourteenth-century book of hours – a book for the layperson, which marked the hours of the day with the appropriate devotional texts.

Walters Manuscript W.88, fol. 129r

Walters Manuscript W.88, fol. 129r

The bizarrely-conjoined pair appear to be experiencing some discord over the roasting of their poultry. I found the man’s disgruntled expression amusing and his gestures endearingly lifelike. Marital unhappiness, ranging from minor spats to ground-shaking domestic abuse abounds in the literature of the Middle Ages. The more I searched through this manuscript, the more I found this wide literary interest in courtship and marriage echoed in its margins.

On folio 152v, we find a woman tending to a child, seemingly oblivious to the fact that her backside, shaped like that of a slender dog, has the face of an angry-looking man instead of a tail (her husband?). This tail-man appears to be in the midst of a very intense discussion with a fellow in the margin. Is he bemoaning the disinterest with which the lady carries him around?

Walters Manuscript W.88, fol. 152v

Walters Manuscript W.88, fol. 152v

What’s happening between this couple, on folio 47v?

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Walters Manuscript W.88

The lady seems to be fending off some enthusiastic advances from a man. He fawns at her, his posture noticeably lower than hers. Her body is turned away from him, whilst her head turns back in disdain. Her hand appears to be holding some kind of stick – is she beating him around the legs?

In contrast, this pair, on  folio 139v, seem to be having altogether more fun in their zoomorphic embrace.

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Walters Manuscript W.88, fol. 139v

Whilst the couple enjoy bliss in each others’ arms , the faces at the tips of their tails appear decidedly glum. In fact, these are among the unhappiest looking faces in the manuscript. They clearly disapprove of this passionate moment.

Unrequited love? It’s here too. This pair have got their elongated necks in a twist:

Walters Manuscript W.88, fol. 132v

Walters Manuscript W.88, fol. 132v

The man, on the right, with his bald head and lovestruck expression, looks entirely pleased with his entanglement, as does his vacant-looking tail-head. The lady, to the left, looks rather more perturbed, with her own leonine tail-head appearing equally put out. Perhaps she has been trapped in an unwanted embrace in a marriage to a lascivious older man. Is he the January to her May?

And finally, the concentration with which this woman beats the man’s bare behind in the following illustration is quite astonishing!

Walters Manuscript W.88, fol. 163r

Walters Manuscript W.88, fol. 163r

The original owner of this manuscript was female. Its marginal illuminations of hybrids, cavorting monkeys, raucous musicians, and grappling couples would have provided amusement to compliment her rigid daily routine as dictated by the book of hours. Conversely, the obscenity and ribaldry in the margins shocked and challenged authority – but ultimately, presented within the margins of a devotional text, it upheld it [1]. Appealing and distracting, they reminded the reader of the potential for worldly pleasures to draw her away from religious devotion. And aside from any didactic purposes, these images gave the manuscript’s limner an irresistible opportunity to express his individual creativity. The illuminations, with their multiple levels of delight and importance, still fascinate us today. There is fluidity in their movement, life in their facial expressions, humour in their behaviour and tumult in their relationships.

[1] see Emma Dillon’s analysis of musical marginalia in The Sense of Sound (Oxford: Oxford University Press), esp. 234,

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