The Marginalia of Society

by Mark Calderwood

This unassuming pen sketch from the Stowe MS 49, written by the scribe Alanus c.1300, shows a heavily laden family of travellers, bickering at each other as they walk- their words are connected to the one who speaks them with lines, surprisingly like a modern comic book’s speech bubbles. The children complain of the weather and the heavy burdens they carry: historian Erik Kwakkel aptly describes it as the medieval version of a modern parent’s nightmare, on the road with a crying toddler and whiny kids that egg each other on. “Are we there yet?” ‘. But rather than a quaint scene, the drawing has some troubling undertones. On closer inspection, it reflects tensions between the Abbey and town that lead to some hostile and quite nasty caricatures of townspeople and especially poor transients like these, showing them as inherently sinful.


Details are significant here. The first character’s speech ‘they die for heat’, has the meaning ‘they die because of heat’; but he has a forked tongue painted in, indicating he is lying. Indeed, the third figures complains of the cold. The family are shown as near naked poor apart from cloaks and hoods, indicating their sloth, i.e. the lack of ‘respectable’, settled-in-the-town-like-decent-folk industry. (The better-off deriding the poor for their plight is not a new thing.) There is also the suggestion they are itinerant Jewish poor, with exaggerated racial features on the father and eldest son: respectively, the false tongue and the early form of judenhat on the father’s pack. That adds another level to the contempt, showing them resentful and squabbling rather than accepting their poverty with ‘Christian’ meekness.

This raft of prejudices seems incongruous coming from a monastic source, but it does connect to the body of medieval literature that satirises the clergy’s failure to show the most fundamental Christian virtue, that of charity. Intended to be seen only within the Abbey, images like this were a way to exclude outsiders and show contempt for the grubby secular world and people transgressed its established boundaries; and therefore also a way of expressing coherence in a very ordered and conformist community.
Marginalia like this was rarely a passive thing, it acted as another narrative parallel to the text of the book which can reveal some remarkable details of life and social attitudes of the time…as well as some startling and all too familiar prejudices.