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Medieval doodles

Drawings, comments and colouring-in are among the traces medieval readers left on the books they once owned. But these ancient doodles and defacements provide fascinating insights into people’s preoccupations over 500 years ago.

Words by Jack Litchfieldaverage reading time 6 minutes

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Photograph of an early printed book open as a page where a previous owner has had a go at copying an illustration of a man playing a guitar like instrument. Next to the open book are a couple of paint brushes and a small dish with saffron leaves on it.

Many of us, at one time or another, have written in, dog-eared or otherwise marked our books, either to point out favoured passages or commemorate a purchase. Many others have carefully avoided leaving any such traces of our ownership.

For some, the highest material standard to which a book – even a favourite book – can aspire is that it doesn’t appear read at all: the physical signs of the book’s ownership and any time a reader has spent with it go unseen. There is a great market for first editions of popular books that ‘appear unread’, though, ironically, the vast sums for which these items are sometimes sold would not be possible had the texts themselves not been quite so well read, and well loved, in the first place.

Wellcome Collection holds several examples of some of the very earliest printed books, known as ‘incunabula’. Incunabula are books printed before 1501 – incunabulum being the Latin word for the origin or birthplace of a thing, in this case the printed book. The surviving copies of any one incunabulum, however, are rarely identical in the way that modern printed books are. In fact, incunabula are books that almost never ‘appear unread’. They often reveal a great deal about the sorts of things late-medieval and early-modern readers did with – and to – their books.

Amateur doodles and dealing with demons

Wellcome Incunabula 2.b.23, also known as ‘Kalender Deutsch’, is a German almanac, printed around 1483, which details particular times of year and the activities and astrological signs that medieval people associated with them. This incunabulum bears various signs of having been read, considered, and personalised by its owners. One anonymous 16th-century owner has regularly, and often meticulously, copied some of the book’s woodcut illustrations in the margins. These reproductions appear to have been carried out with care, although, in one case, as part of an obvious pattern of trial and error. It may be that the owner simply copied the images that most appealed to them as they worked through the book. Or perhaps, by copying or colouring only certain images, the owner was tailoring their book to reflect the activities and symbols that meant the most in relation to their own life.

More: Fascinating items found trapped between the pages in our books.

Photograph of a page from an early printed book where a previous owner has partially coloured in elements of an illustration.

Incunabula often reveal a great deal about the sorts of things late medieval and early modern readers did with – and to – their books.

Wellcome Incunabula 4.a.16, ‘Der Teutsch Belial’, printed in 1487, is a German translation of an earlier 14th-century Latin text. This book describes a scenario in which Lucifer brings a lawsuit against Jesus Christ for descending, and thereby trespassing, into hell. The incunabulum features multiple woodcuts of demons, kings and heavenly beings, and some of these illustrations have been coloured by hand. This colouring is unlikely to have been carried out during the book’s production; it is more likely that one of the book’s early owners either had the colouring commissioned or, judging by the irregularity of the decoration, coloured in the pictures themselves.

While many of the woodcuts in ‘Der Teutsch Belial’ have been brought to life with obvious care, one image, appearing in the book’s final pages, has been literally defaced – some of the faces have been scrubbed out. This scene depicts a group of demons jeering in the direction of heaven, and it must have provoked one owner of the book in a way that other images did not.

Photograph of a page from an early printed book where a previous owner has tried to rub out the faces of some of the demons.

A woodcut in ‘Der Teutsch Belial’ where an owner has removed the faces of two demons.

One explanation for this is that, unlike the stunning full-page woodcut of the fallen angels being cast out of heaven, the defaced demons of this image are shown reaching into heaven. The image’s visual dynamics suggest that the demons are challenging Divine authority, so the book’s owner intervened, blinding two of the uppity demons. The demons may even be appealing for mercy, which at least one owner felt they did not deserve. As with the ‘Kalender Deutsch’, the ‘Belial’ reveals something of the often intimate and thoughtful ways in which premodern people spent time with their books.

Photograph of a page from an early printed book where a previous owner has tried to hand colour parts of the illustration.

A page from ‘Der Teutsch Belial’, hand-coloured by one of the book’s owners.

The importance of provenance

Wellcome Incunabula 5.c.13 is a 1492 Latin printing of Seneca’s ‘Opera Philosophica’. This book remembers its previous owners in a different way. It has been annotated and inscribed at various times throughout its history, such as by one Cuthbert Johnson, who owned the book during the 16th century.

Photograph of a page in an early printed book where a previous owner has written his name, 'Cuthbert Johnson'.

And some time before Cuthbert got his hands on it, the ‘Opera’ had been in the possession of Thomas Linacre (1460–1524), the English humanist and physician. Linacre wrote his name in the book, along with the title ‘Medicus’, and recorded his thoughts in several places as notes in the margins of the pages. He founded the Royal College of Physicians, and it is for this reason that the book was eventually bought by Dr John Cleland (1835–1921), Emeritus Professor of Anatomy at Glasgow University. The most important thing about this incunabulum – at least for Dr Cleland – is that Thomas Linacre once owned it.

We know this because Cleland had the book rebound in synthetic leather, with a precious gilt spine giving the book’s title and date of printing, and with a colour portrait of Thomas Linacre inset into the centre of the book’s new cover. Cleland quite literally foregrounded Thomas Linacre’s place in his book’s story. He also included his own name in the form of a bookplate on the incunabulum’s front pastedown, adding himself to the incunabulum’s history and bringing himself a little closer to Thomas Linacre.

Photograph of a page in an early printed book where a previous owner has written his name, 'Thomas Linacre'.

Like the owners of ‘Kalender Deutsch’ and the ‘Belial’, Cleland changed the identity of his book to make it say something unique to – and arguably about – himself, the owner. We might ask to whom this copy of the ‘Opera’ truly belonged: Seneca, who wrote it? Linacre, who wrote in it? Or Cleland, whose opinion, I think, can be seen clearly on the book’s front cover?

Interactions between readers and books are diverse and always personal. A reader rarely acquires a book without one party leaving its mark on the other. Anyone who has worried whether or not they ought to mark their books might consider John Cleland, and imagine his horror were his copy of Thomas Linacre’s ‘Opera’ to appear ‘unread’.

About the author

Jack Litchfield

Jack Litchfield is a specialist in Medieval Studies who is based at the University of Leeds. He studied the Wellcome Incunbula during a 2018 research placement at Wellcome Collection and also contributed to the Material Evidence in Incunabula database.