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Children will be children – the doodles unearthed in a medieval manuscript

Posted on 12 July 2016

A series of crude doodles and drawings discovered in the margins of a medieval manuscript were probably made by children, a University of York historian has revealed.

Figure 1: LJS 361, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries folio 26r.Figure 1: LJS 361, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries folio 26r.

Dr Deborah Thorpe enlisted the help of child psychologists to identify the drawings – written in the pages of a 14th Century book which originally came from a Franciscan convent in Naples.

The drawings depict a horse or cow, a human figure and possible images of the devil.

They were probably drawn by children a couple of centuries later as the book found its way into the hands of the children who took to sketching in the margins.

Dr Thorpe, a research fellow at the University of York’s Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorders, said she came across the drawings by chance while carrying out research on a separate project.

She said: “I was looking through a database of medieval manuscripts online and I found images of these beautiful doodles in the margins and to me they looked like they were done by children. I thought ‘this is really interesting, has anyone written anything about this?’”

Dr Thorpe enlisted the help of child psychologists who confirmed they were probably drawn by children aged four to six years old.

“The psychologists came up with a set of criteria for why we could say they were the work of children, for example the elongated shapes, the really long legs and the lack of a torso, the focus on the head.

Figure 2: LJS 361, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts,
University of Pennsylvania Libraries folio 22r.

Figure 2: LJS 361, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries folio 22r.

Figure 3: LJS 361, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries folio 23r.

Figure 3: LJS 361, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries folio 23r.

“These are the things that are most important to children. If you compare them with the doodles that children make today they are really similar. It was just a case of detective work really.”

Dr Thorpe added: “There are later examples of other historical children’s drawings, but this is the first time I think that children’s drawings in medieval books have been classified as the work of children using a set of psychological criteria.”

“It is striking evidence of interactions between children and books in the medieval period. It shows how children back then enjoyed playing and learning, expressing themselves and allowing their imagination to take off, just like today’s children.”

“Perhaps they were allowed to do it or perhaps they weren’t, it adds another human dimension to a fascinating story.”

The paper is published in the journal Cogent Arts & Humanities.

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