Left: NY, Morgan, MS G.24, fol. 25v / Right: British Library, Add 62925, fol. 67r
Left: NY, Morgan, MS G.24, fol. 25v / Right: British Library, Add 62925, fol. 67r

5 Very Weird Themes in Medieval Manuscripts

Left: NY, Morgan, MS G.24, fol. 25v / Right: British Library, Add 62925, fol. 67r
Left: NY, Morgan, MS G.24, fol. 25v / Right: British Library, Add 62925, fol. 67r

Every generation thinks they were the ones to invent the fart joke. The truth is that people have been laughing about bodily functions—and other low-hanging humor fruit—for a long, long time, even in the margins of medieval texts. (Fair warning: Some of these images are legitimately R-rated.)


Contradictory though it may seem, the margins of religious texts were a perfect and popular place for crude humor during the Middle Ages. If the scripture was king, the margins were its jester, poking holes in the text's (or author’s) grandeur and commenting pointedly on issues of the day. Some of that commentary was nuanced or couched in metaphors. The poop drawings … a little less so.


Image Credit: British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV

Art and religious historians have debated this one for centuries. Some theorize that the snail and its trail of slime represent death; others think it signifies the Resurrection. Some believe it’s a metaphor for the lower class and their struggle against the armored aristocracy. Still others think scribes liked snails because, well, they kind of look like penises. Which brings us to our next item ...


Image Credit: Lyon, Bibliothèque municipale, Ms 5128, fol. 100r

So. Many. Penises.


Image Credit: British Library, Yates Thompson 8, f. 294r.

Margin art was a complex, labor-intensive game for both reader and scribe, as symbolic as any family crest. Lions had one meaning and monkeys another, as did their behavior and placement on the page. Illuminators swiped existing symbols and appropriated them for new, bizarre uses. If all this sounds familiar, it’s because we're still doing it.


Image Credit: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Monty Python may have made illuminated butt trumpets famous, but they certainly didn’t invent them. No, those very special instruments came straight from the borders of religious texts, where they lay for centuries, amplifying and directing farts right into the holy gospels.

(Need more marginal mayhem? Check out Discarding Images on tumblr.)

Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
The Covers of Jack Kerouac's Classic Titles Are Getting a Makeover
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press

Readers have been enjoying classic Jack Kerouac books like The Dharma Bums and On the Road for decades, but starting this August the novels will have a new look. Several abstract covers have been unveiled as part of Penguin’s "Great Kerouac" series, according to design website It’s Nice That.

The vibrant covers, designed by Tom Etherington of Penguin Press, feature the works of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline. The artwork is intended to capture “the experience of reading Kerouac” rather than illustrating a particular scene or character, Etherington told It’s Nice That. Indeed, abstract styles of artwork seem a fitting match for Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose”—a writing style that was influenced by improvisational jazz music.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of The Dharma Bums, which was published just one year after On the Road. The Great Kerouac series will be available for purchase on August 2.

[h/t It's Nice That]

John MacDougall, Getty Images
Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
Arrested 11/9/1938 — Altstrelitzer prison
Deported 1942 Auschwitz

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.


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