Gravity in the Margins (Mmm… Marginalia #55)

Note: Considering how many incoming visitors have been trying to get to my discarded Mario post, I’ve reposted it with only a few changes. I’m still not 100% happy with it, but I am a slave to my public.

Consider the following image, taken from the lower margin of Bodleian Library MS 264 fol. 17v:

Hopefully, you don’t need me to point out that the dashing mustachioed figure in red between the hound and his fleeing prey isn’t original to the manuscript. But imagine for a moment that Mario (here pictured circa 1990) hopped down a warp pipe and emerged on the page of a medieval manuscript circa 1290. If we look closely at the way that the medieval artist arranges his page, I think we’ll find that Mario would get along pretty well. In fact, I contend that the imagined world of the deluxe Gothic illuminated page is follows many of the same rules as Mario’s side-scrolling 8-bit one.*


In this post, I’m just going to focus on just one of those rules, but it’s a big one: gravity. Deluxe Gothic manuscript pages are drawn as though the figures on them are subject to a force of gravity that pulls them down towards the open space in the lower margin.** Consequently, you almost never see figures stranded out in the middle of open white space. Marginal men, women, and beasties may hang from beneath the page’s decorative borders or run along the top of them–as Mario and his rabbit friend above are doing–but if they stray too far into the margin and away from the border, they require some additional support. Usually, that support takes the form of patches of ground, like those underneath these figures I’ve shown you before (from the Ormesby Psalter):

In order to keep the man and his goat in the middle from falling right on through the bottom of the page, the artist draws in little patches of ground beneath them.** Mario, no stranger to platforms that hang in the air as if bolted to the background, would feel right at home with this arrangement. And vice versa:

And it’s not just the little grass clots that are attached to the page behind them. If I widen my focus a bit on the image I started with, you can see that the border-platform that Mario, rabbit, and hound are standing upon dangles from a fancy initial capital that, like the grass clots from the Ormesby Psalter and the question blocks from the Mushroom Kingdom, does not itself feel the pull of gravity:


If the rabbit wants to escape the hound, he’s going to have to double back and follow Mario up to the solid ground of the inhabited initial and hope the hound isn’t as nimble. Just in case, he probably ought to platform his way up the page’s center margin like so:

If you look carefully (the image above–and all the images in this post–should expand if you click it), you can see that the two initial capitals on the page form separate platforms, not quite touching. The uppermost capital provides support for two vine-like borders, one growing upward and another that downward toward the lower capital. And the vines in turn provide support for little birds who sit atop them.

If it turns out that the hound can leap, too, the rabbit still might be able to get away if he can convince Mario to give up one of his precious oak leaves. Flying creatures are allowed to ascend into the open white space of the medieval manuscript page, as this moth is doing in the top left margin of this very same page:

The poor insect enthusiast beneath can only gaze up wistfully at the moth, unable to get any higher on the page because he’s run out of platforms.

Now, this attention to gravity is a general tendency, not an ironclad rule. If you poke around Gothic manuscripts long enough you’ll find many exceptions, but probably a lot fewer than you might expect. In fact, I’ve found that the fancier the manuscript, the more consistently its artists tend to respect gravity’s role on the page. Deluxe manuscripts like the Yale Lancelot or the Bodleian Alexander are scrupulous about making sure everything is resting on something that’s attached to something that’s attached back to one of the anchor points. In fact, the better manuscripts purposefully play with the expectation of downward gravity, creating elaborate and fanciful connections between the objects on the page. Next time I get around to this subject, I’ll try to show you some of my favorite examples.

*Thus, this post is going to basically be a rehash of the paper I gave at K-Zoo last year–with 300% more Mario!
**And presumably losing an extra man.

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