In a lot of ways, a manuscript page is like a live on-location news broadcast from a sports stadium. You know, when the local TV affiliate sends a reporter to the big game, they turn towards the camera and ignore the crowd behind them, going out of their way to stick to the story at hand. People in the crowd, on the other hand, seeing the camera, go out of their to act like asses: they laugh and point, make bunny ears, chant USA! USA! USA! because HOLY CRAP DO YOU SEE THAT CAMERA?! DUDE!!! I’M ON TV!!!!!*
As a general rule, you see the same hierarchy on the manuscript page. The main-text illuminations act like the reporter: they stick, more or less, to the subject of the text around them and if they see the figures in the margin at all, they make little indication. The figures in the margin, on the other hand, are the hooligans. They point and laugh at the stodgy main-texters, ape and parody their stances and gestures, drop their pants and moon them, etc.
To put it another way, the pictures in the main image act like they live in a world completely separate from what goes on in the margins. Though the marginal figures can see in, they can’t see out. But for every general rule I devise about manuscript pages, there are exceptions aplenty. The image at the top of this post, from Bodleian Library MS Liturg. 198, is one of those exceptions.
The main illumination is a depiction of David and Goliath.** But in the upper left corner of the illumination, one of the main-text inhabitants is making a break for the margin! Here’s a closeup:
Not only does this main-text-dwelling guy realize there’s a marginal world out there, he’s decided to go join it, leaving his little tower home behind. Moreover, eagle-eyed readers may spot that this coward is, apart from the colors, dressed exactly like David, down to the little buckle purse on his tunicish-skirt thing.*** We’re probably meant to contrast this pusillanimous escape attempt with David’s courage in standing up to the Philistine giant.
But it’s probably also supposed to be a joke. Goliath is so scary, he causes people to abandon the image that contains him and take their chances out in the margins with all those monkeys and weird grotesques. And further, this is a joke the artist tells at least one other time. A few pages later, we have this image of a man apparently so bored by the sacral goings-on in the main text illumination he’s willing to leave it in favor of the company of this marginal fiddler. Like so:
The fiddler, in yet another layer of role reversal, seems to be pretending not to notice the pleading hooded main-text man. And frankly, if I were him, I’d avoid the red hooded guy, too. Dude seems like he’s the clingy type.
*Woooooooo!!! Go Braves!!!!! Woooooooo!!! Hi Mom!! You raised a jackass with no sense of decorum but a surplus of exclamation points and o’s! Wooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!
**What, you didn’t know Goliath dressed like a 13th-century knight? Historical recreation wasn’t high up on the medieval agenda. You can tell it’s Goliath because of the bloody stone in the middle of his forehead.
***SCAers will know what that’s supposed to be called and inform me soon, I’m sure.