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  • A rabbit attempts to play a church organ, while a knight fights a giant snail and a naked man blows a trumpet with his rear end.


  • Painted with squirrel-hair brushes on vellum or parchment by monks, nuns, and urban craftspeople, these bizarre images populate the margins of the most prized books from the Middle Ages.


  • Their illustrations often tell a second story as rich as the text itself.


  • Some images appear in many different illuminated manuscripts, and often reinforce the religious content of the books they decorated.


  • For example, a porcupine picking up fruit on its spines could represent the devil stealing the fruits of faith, or Christ taking up the sins of mankind.


  • Medieval lore stated that a hunter could only capture a unicorn when it lay its horn in the lap of a virgin, so a unicorn could symbolize either sexual temptation or Christ being captured by his enemies.


  • Rabbits, meanwhile, could represent human's lustful natures and could redeem themselves through attempts to make sacred music despite their failings.


  • All of these references would have been familiar to medieval Europeans from other art forms and oral tradition, though some have grown more mysterious over the centuries.


  • Today, no one can say for sure what the common motif of a knight fighting a snail meansor why the knight so often appears to be losing.


  • The snail might be a symbol of the inevitability of death, which defeats even the strongest knights.


  • Or it could represent humility, and a knight's need to vanquish his own pride.


  • Many illuminated manuscripts were copies of religious or classical texts, and the bookmakers incorporated their own ideas and opinions in illustrations.


  • The butt tuba, for example, was likely shorthand to express disapproval withor add an ironic spin tothe action in the text.


  • Illuminations could also be used to make subversive political commentary.


  • The text of the "Smithfield Decretals" details the Church's laws and punishments for lawbreakers.


  • But the margins show a fox being hanged by geese, a possible allusion to the common people turning on their powerful oppressors.


  • In the "Chronica Majora," Matthew Paris summarized a scandal of his day, in which the Welsh prince Griffin plummeted to his death from the tower of London.


  • Some believed the prince fell, Paris wrote, while others thought he was pushed.


  • He added his own take in the margins, which show the prince falling to his death while trying to escape on a rope made of bed-sheets.


  • Some margins told stories of a more personal nature.


  • "The Luttrell Psalter," a book of psalms and prayers commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, shows a young woman having her hair done, while a young man catches a bird in a net.


  • The shaved patch on his head is growing out, indicating that he is a clergyman neglecting his duties.


  • This alludes to a family scandal where a young cleric ran away with Sir Geoffrey's daughter Elizabeth.


  • The family's personal spiritual advisor likely painted it into the book to remind his clients of their failings and encourage their spiritual development.


  • Some artists even painted themselves into the manuscripts.


  • The opening image of Christine de Pisan's collected works shows de Pisan presenting the book to the Queen of France.


  • The queen was so impressed by de Pisan's previous work that she commissioned her own copy.


  • Such royal patronage enabled her to establish her own publishing house in Paris.


  • The tradition of illuminated manuscripts lasted for over a thousand years.


  • The books were created by individuals or teams for uses as wide-ranging as private prayer aids, service books in churches, textbooks, and protective talismans to take into battle.


  • Across all this variation, those tricky little drawings in the margins are a unique window into the minds of medieval artists.


A rabbit attempts to play a church organ, while a knight fights a giant snail and a naked man blows a trumpet with his rear end.


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