Where the Sacred and the Profane Intertwine

Written by Jennifer Chen-su Huang

detail from the margins of the Gorleston Psalter, c.1310

One might be surprised to find profane images alongside sacred texts, but this is a common occurrence in medieval manuscripts. Whether the monks transcribing these holy words were just incredibly bored or whether these pictures running down the marginalia act to serve some kind of purpose or as a foil to the text is unclear. There are manifold reasons for their creation, but it would be impossible to know without being there to ask the artist.

The 14th-century illuminated book of Psalms, the “Gorleston Psalter,” contains carefully drawn illustrations that border on the line of being blasphemous, sexual, and/or scatological. The artist is unknown, but the book was originally produced for a member of the Church of St. Andrew, in the town of Gorleston in Norfolk, England. 

In this book intended for prayer and religious devotion, the reader comes across all sorts of charming images, ranging from idyllic to outright quirky. Along the margins of these pages are many drawings — a few feature scenes of everyday life, such as  farming, but most of them are doodles of animals, people, or hybrid plant-human-animal beings behaving badly or grotesquely. Above a large curvy letter delineating the start of a paragraph stands a man graphically exposing his rear-end to the reader. Another top margin features a nude bishop, whose ranking is only marked by his hat, chastising a defecating cleric, whose bottom hangs out from his draped robes.

Doodles like these have always received criticism, perhaps most famously from Bernard of Clairvaux, the 11th-century French abbot, who asked: “What excuse can there be for these ridiculous monstrosities…? One could spend the whole day gazing fascinated at these things, one by one, instead of meditating on the law of God. Good Lord, even if the foolishness of it all occasion no shame, at least one might balk at the expense.”

Over the years, there have been many theories about why these doodles– despite the criticism they engendered  as to their particular function and purpose — were so pervasive. Perhaps the margins served as a space to act out creative parodies or subversions against cultural norms. In any case, the abbot was right; even centuries later “one could spend the whole day gazing fascinated at these things.”

detail from the margins of the Gorleston Psalter, c.1310
detail from the margins of the Gorleston Psalter, c.1310


Sarah J. Biggs, “‘Virile, if Somewhat Irresponsible’ Design: The Marginalia of the Goreston Psalter,” British Library. https://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/10/virile-if-somewhat-irresponsible-design-the-marginalia-of-the-gorleston-psalter.html?_ga=2.41524065.291545016.1565203175-771272695.1565203175

Sarah J. Biggs, “More Gorleston Psalter ‘Virility,'” British Library. https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/10/more-gorleston-psalter-virility-profane-images-in-a-sacred-space.html

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