The Medieval Origins of the Bathroom Reader (Mmm… Marginalia #102)

Twitter never ceases to amaze. Only a week after TV’s LeVar Burton introduced me to the world of whimsy and wonder you can find at your local library in your kitchen when TV’s LeVar Burton is crashing at your place, my Twitter stream brings word that I’m not the only person on the net obsessed with medieval marginal potty humor.* Behold, courtesy of Kate Beaton’s stream:**

I hate posting images of unknown provenance, but other than its recent Twitterian origin, I’m at a loss to tell you where it’s originally from. The manuscripts whose margins I usually haunt are predominantly de luxe thirteenth and fourteenth century productions made in the style popular in the north of France, south of England, and/or the County of Flanders and its close neighbors. This rings none of the familiar bells.

So, once again, I end up tossing a question to the peanut gallery comprised of my readership.*** Any idea from whence it hails?

Wherever it’s from, I hope that someday someone uses it as the cover image for a book on Chaucer’s dirty mind, as it is pleasingly evocative of the Miller’s Tale‘s climax. Only here the clerkish guy in the lower middle margin is not occupied with thoughts of a kiss from a beautiful lady**** when the window-dwelling wit lets fly with his messy substitute; rather, he’s too engrossed in the urine sample he’s studying to get out of the way of the inbound stool sample.

One final detail I love: the top figure is drawn as though he’s reading the text in front of him, as is often the case with the more scatologically-minded marginal dwellers. Reading while enthroned is a habit with a far more ancient pedigree than you might have guessed.


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  1. * And making snarky comments at the same. []
  2. ** Follow her as beatonna@Twitter. []
  3. *** Many of whom are far more knowledgeable than I, and against the aggregate, I can but marvel. []
  4. **** Who, if this really were an analogue, I guess is hiding somewhere beneath the block of text. []

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  • http://historienerrant.wordpress.com/ historienerrant

    Well, from the look of it I’d say it’s got to be from late 13th century Italy (though I’d need to see more of the manuscript to be really sure and/or provide more precise, er, expertise).

    So I’m afraid it’s unlikely that this image ever ends up on the cover of a book on Chaucer – unless of course you write that book yourself and get to pick the cover image 😉

    • http://www.gotmedieval.com Got Medieval

      As if book covers had to correspond to the original subject matter or origin of the image.  People use the jousting knights from the BnF Vulgate Cycle MS I love so dear on the cover of everything.

  • https://profiles.google.com/104791269167429064986/ Judy S

    Could it be a medical image? Your verbal description suggests that. Maybe the guy has to shit in a pot after peeing in a cup?

  • Richardjohnguy

    You know about Kate Beaton’s site and her livejournal, right? She’s often responsive to comments.

  • Rosa Morgan

    this image might work for a novel I’m working on, thanks

  • abfabjam

    Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he. He called for a light in the middle of the night to go to the WC. The WC was occupied and so was the kitchen sink, it had to be done it had to be done, so out the window he stuck his bum, a friendly copper passing by received a sausage in the eye! Looking up he espied the rest, and received another down his vest!
    The result of a Church of England education.

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