When is a goose like a chorister? (Mmm… Marginalia #31)

This week’s image comes from the lower margin of Das Gänsebuch, a liturgical choir book made in Nuremburg in the early sixteenth century.*


Das Gänsebuch, or to translate it, “The Geese Book” (so named for reasons that should now be obvious), is one of those large format books that would have sat up on a pedestal before the assembled congregation, large enough that the members of the choir closest to it could use it as a crib for the songs they’re meant to be singing as part of the liturgy.

But, of course, the choir has likely all learned the songs by heart, anyway, so there is ample opportunity for their eyes to drop down to the page’s bottom gutter, where they’ll spot this choir of geese doing exactly what they’re doing.

I’m fairly certain the joke here grows out of the tension between where your eyes should be and where they are. If you’re using the book “properly,” you’re going to be looking at the music and at your cantor, so one one level, the geese being led by a wolf is a warning: “Get your eyes out of the margin and back on the cantor, for he has sharp teeth and is quick to anger.”

But, then, the easiest way to keep someone’s attention from drifting into the margin would have been not to have put a picture there in the first place. The book the geese are reading from has no marginalia in it, after all, and their attention seems to be right where it ought to be, on their wolfish cantor. Yet keeping their eyes on their own work has its own perils, too, as the geesely-choristers are blissfully unaware of the fox who’s getting ready to either molest or eat one of them.***

In other words, “ha ha, made you look!”****

*I recognize that the sixteenth-century is pushing it for medieval. Hell, Columbus was already wandering around Columbia and looking for Marco Polo’s gold by then. But in general, the Renaissance gets later and later the further north you go,** so Nuremburg probably still counts as medieval for our purposes.
**No one has checked, but it is possible that this explains why Santa’s elves continue to carve wooden horses that haven’t been the “it” gift since Christmas 1482. The Renaissance is still moving north and hasn’t caught them yet.
***Something about the way fox is standing to me suggests the fox is going to teach the goose the difference between a “good touch” and a “bad touch”… the hard way. That’s the position and gesture the dogs at the dog park assume right before some dominance humping is about to go down. And yes, I do in fact spend too much time at the dog park these days, why do you ask?
****For me, that line cannot be delivered without doing a Nelson Muntz impression. Oh, and while I have you all distracted down here in the margin thinking about the Simpsons when you should be thinking about medieval junk, I should add that I have no clue why the artists took such care to draw in the wolf’s dangly bits. Perhaps that’s why the geese are keeping their eyes glued to the book. Awkward!

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  • William Starbreaker

    The geese marginalia reminds me of your footnotes. Tempting and distracting at the same time.

    Although I haven’t been devoured/molested by a footnote, yet.

  • Fencing Bear

    William: See Robert Grudin’s Book for the dangers of footnotes! There they take over the faculty meeting.

    My theory about the marginalia, for what it’s worth, is that one’s eyes wander anyway and the marginalia are there to help to remind one to look back where one should. I think the geese are definitely learning their lesson!

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