Halloween is a magical, mystical time of year for me. There’s a delicious chill in the air. It’s time to settle down in front of the fireplace. Time for pumpkins, spices, and all things spooky! For me, spooky includes weird and unusual, and that’s exactly what I’ve been finding in my online adventures.
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I love learning new things. I especially love finding an interesting fact and following it to see where it goes. At any given time — but especially in the fall of the year — you’ll find me reading and studying an odd variety of things.
For what it’s worth, I’m currently reading a book on the history of Area 51, one on the unsolved 1921 murder of Hollywood producer William Desmond Taylor, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, translated by William Weaver. I have Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse on my bedside table, as well.
Eco’s 1980 novel is undoubtedly the most challenging. It’s a murder-mystery set in a fourteenth century monastery with a large scriptorium, or library. Monks there work at copying manuscripts, and as monks were wont to do, they occasional add drolleries in the margins of the books.
I was familiar with the word droll, meaning a sort of dry humor, but what, exactly is a drollery, or drollerie, as it is often spelled? A little browsing, a bit more reading, and I was rewarded with a literally fantastic display of monstrous, yet humorous art, mostly depicting animals, but oftentimes including humans and plants all jumbled together in grotesque forms. In fact, grotesque is a synonym for drollerie.
Here’s a good definition:
Drolleries, often called a grotesque, are decorative thumbnail images in the margins of Illuminated manuscripts, most popular from about 1250 through the 15th century, though found earlier and later. The most common types of drollery images appear as mixed creatures, either between different animals, or between animals and human beings, or even between animals and plants or inorganic things. Examples include cocks with human heads, dogs carrying human masks, archers winding out of a fish’s mouth, bird-like dragons with an elephant’s head on the back. Often they have a thematic connection with the subject of the text of the page, and larger miniatures, and they usually form part of a wider scheme of decorated margins, though some are effectively doodles added later. One manuscript, The Croy Hours, has so many it has become known as The Book of Drolleries. Another manuscript that contains many drolleries is the Luttrell Psalter, which has hybrid creatures and other monsters on a great deal of the pages. From – Educalingo
But what was the purpose of adding these weird doodles? I can’t answer that question. It’s been suggested that adding drolleries was simply a way to break up the monotony of what was probably rather dull reading. Other suggestions are that drolleries were a bit like today’s political cartoons in that they reflected thoughts and feelings about the state of the church or society.
Many drolleries showed animals — in a rather abnormal way. One of the most popular animals was the rabbit. Although timid in reality, drollerie rabbits were often violent and evil. A good article discussing these wicked creatures can be found here at Ancient Origins: Drolleries of the Middle Ages Included Comical Yet Sinister Killer Rabbits. It’s worth reading.
From the article:
“Apart from aggressive rabbits, drolleries also depict a variety of other animals . This type of drollerie had its origins in bestiaries, which are compendia of beasts that were hugely popular during the Middle Ages. Bestiaries are thought to have lost their appeal by the second half of the thirteenth century, as evident in their decreased production.
Nevertheless, the creatures of such bestiaries retained their popularity and continued to be depicted as drolleries. Such drolleries include both real animals, including birds and stags, and fantastic creatures, like dragons and unicorns. It may be added that these creatures are normally drawn based on their descriptions as found in the bestiaries.”
One reason I enjoyed learning about drolleries is I seem to have created a few of my own, not as marginalia in any manuscripts, but as part of my Inktober participation in previous years.
Perhaps you remember “Monsterus Whalus”, my comical blue whale from October 2018.
Or my inky dragon from 2017:
I had fun drawing both of these “monsters” as well as many others. They are, I suppose, my own version of medieval drolleries, although I had never heart of such a thing. Of course, I’d seen medieval illustrations, and I’ve long been a lover of mythical creatures, such as those described by Jorge Luis Borges in his Book of Imaginary Beings. In a similar, but slightly different vein, there is also a nice collection of caricatures and “monster” drawings by Leonardo da Vinci.
Drolleries fascinate me, and the more I read, the more intrigued I become. There is a lot of information online, and if you’re interested in learning more — and seeing examples — you might find these links helpful:
You can also take an up-close look at a facsimile edition of “The Book of Drolleries” – The Croy Hours.
And here, you’ll find images of the Luttrell Psalter, courtesy of the British Museum:
For me, the grotesques or drolleries are strange, frightening, humorous, and puzzling all at the same time. I do want to know more about them, and I do want to indulge myself in drawing more of my own imaginary “doodle monsters”. They are such fun to make.
Who knows, really! Maybe that’s why medieval monks drew their own drolleries. Maybe they were just having fun.