Medieval Maps and Marginalia: Monsters and Hidden Meanings

Molly Anderson

We’ve all doodled in the margins of a notebook, creating strange shapes and creatures that sprout from our imaginations.

The margins of Medieval maps and manuscripts are peppered with drawings of absurd products of the imagination – from knightly rabbits riding snail-men to mythological Blemmyae (people with no heads but with faces in their chests). These giant cannibals were allegedly encountered during one of Alexander the Great’s explorations and were just one type of semi-human monster colourfully depicted in medieval margins. Many of these creatures have their origins in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and it was believed that at the edges of the world dwelled monsters, semi-human in form but degenerated and corrupt. These ideas were revived in the medieval period, as famous ancient texts were discovered, revised, and reprinted. In the first century CE, Pliny the Elder recounted tales of an enormous variety of strange figures living at the edges of the world. His text, Historia Naturalis, was rediscovered and reprinted from the mid-1400s onwards. Moreover, Cicero’s De Divinatione focussed on monsters being a sign of impending disaster. Monsters demonstrated that something bad would happen, and the similarities in words ‘monster’ and ‘de-monstrate’ are no coincidence. Both originate from the Latin, ‘monere’ meaning ‘warn’ – perhaps of the dangers of the edges of the world or, nearer to home, of sin and the wrath of God. With the proliferation of these ancient texts in the Renaissance, scholars continued to believe that the edges of the world were populated by monstrous beings. This explains the presence of such creatures in the margins of surviving written and pictural sources. Historian Massimo Perrone writes on the use of marginalia by manuscript illustrators: ‘they personalized the manuscript for the owner, added levity and irony to the text or represented funny stories in order to make it more interesting; yet, but monsters were especially used to express the ugliness of sin and thus they were often portrayed as physically deformed.’
Medieval Maps and Marginalia: Monsters and Hidden Meanings
Medieval maps

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Medieval Maps and Marginalia: Monsters and Hidden Meanings

This proves that the Ancient theories on the existence of monsters and their symbolism really did translate into the practical work of manuscriptal and cartographical illustration.

This tradition had theoretical overlaps with humoralism (credited to the Greek physician Hippocrates: 460 BCE–370 BCE) in that it was believed climate could impact the balance of the Four Humours. This could explain the believed creation of these monsters and the religious ideology linked to their subhuman forms. They were a subversion of the perfect body of man created in God’s image and were thus anatomically, morally, and spiritually inferior and ungodly. Regrettably, these ideas informed emerging ideas of race. Europeans who, from the mid-fifteenth century, began interacting with other cultures used beliefs that ethnic and cultural differences could be explained by weather and humoral differences to justify the supposed inferiority of people from regions with more extreme climates. This is alluded to in the Map Psalter, a late thirteenth century map depicting the world as it was known at the time. At the bottom of Africa on the right, you see a collection of semi-human creatures, illustrating the belief that in the extreme climates at the edge of the world dwelled monsters. Jack Hartnell makes the connection that this isn’t far different from the modern-day belief in the existence of alien life forms out in space, a belief which is ‘governed not by scientific truth but by the same very human impulses that formed these monstrous medieval races. The Blemmyae, then, sit at an intersection between medieval bodily fact and bodily fiction, giving us a glimpse less into the realities of pre-modern Africa than into the imaginations of everyday folk, their aspirations, their fantasies, their fears.’ Mapmakers in medieval times, Hartnell reminds his readers, were just as interested in depicting historical and mythological figures and events as they were in accurately depicting the geography of the known world. Hence, referring back to Perrone, medieval illustrations were – and remain – entertaining, educational, and expressive of fears and beliefs.
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Medieval Maps and Marginalia: Monsters and Hidden Meanings

Molly Anderson

My name is Molly Anderson and I graduated from Lancaster University with a First-Class BA Honours degree in History in 2022. I am now a writer for a history holiday travel company and am looking forward to starting a Masters degree in Heritage Management at Queen Mary University of London in September 2023. You can follow me on Instagram, @molly_the_historian, for regular posts about places I visit and my research.
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