Imaginery creatures, chubby lapdogs and a merry wild sow

By Hanne Grießmann

As a research assistant on the MWW’s Text and Frame research project, Hanne Grießmann ordered a late-medieval prayer book to the reading room of the Herzog August library. She had no inkling of the brightly coloured, fantastical world she would find inside. Her blog article tells us of the mischievous, playful goings-on in the margins of this religious manuscript and what they reveal about the satirical side of the Middle Ages.


What is that swine with the wheelbarrow up to? Drolleries in a late-medieval prayer book. Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Library, Cod. Guelf. 87.10 Aug. 12°, fol. 52v-53r. (CC BY-SA)

Don’t judge a book by its cover: this rather mundane statement also applies to working with medieval manuscripts. Although I had read the reference to ‘impressive miniatures’ in the description of this manuscript in the Wolfenbüttel Digital Database, I had no inkling of the brightly coloured, fantastical world I would find when I ordered the Cod. Guelf. 87.10 Aug. 12° manuscript in the reading room.

It is always a special moment when you first set eyes on such old and unique manuscripts. But some of these moments are even more special than others, as was the case with this codex.

A very special moment

In this case, it was a 212-page Upper German prayer book produced in Nuremburg at the end of the 15th century.  From the shelf mark, I already knew that I would be handed a small book in the duodecimo format (12°).  The shelf mark of stock in the Augustean collection contains information about the format; hence the 2° at the end of the shelf mark Cod. Guelf. 81.10 Aug. 2° indicates that this Latin – Middle Low German Psalter, which I once worked with in the past (see my blog article: A Diversity of Manuscripts in the Grip of Angled Brackets), is a manuscript in folio format.

So I was expecting a small, thick prayer book, which would certainly be difficult to read. In fact, the manuscript was only 9.5 x 7 cm; it was considerably smaller than my left hand and fit into it comfortably. Moreover, although written on parchment, it was thinner and lighter than I had expected. The cover was of plain black leather, but I was struck by the gilt edging of the pages. The contents were presented in a neatly written book hand, known as Bastarda, on light-coloured, fine parchment of excellent quality.

Magnificent, colourful scenes

With its inconspicuous cover, the highlight of this manuscript is, in the most literal sense, its illuminations. Alongside 20 colourful, full-page miniatures, there are also richly ornamented initial letters. On the pages facing the miniatures, trails of opulent foliage and flowers are inhabited by all sorts of animals, putti and imaginary creatures. I was immediately captivated by these magnificent, colourful scenes since most of the manuscripts I had worked with in the past did not have this kind og book decoration.

In particular, the animals and figures which spook through the lower margins of the pages aroused my interest; they did not seem to fit with the otherwise pious content of the book, as shown in the figure below:

Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Library, Cod. Guelf. 87.10 Aug. 12°, fol. 101v–102r. (CC BY-SA)

These drolleries (from the French drôle , meaning painful, strange, comical) are grotesque, imaginary creatures but also very lifelike portrayals of humans and animals, which can be found romping about in the margins of manuscripts, as well as on textiles and buildings.

Miniatures as an aid to meditation

The page design of medieval manuscripts is often rigorously structured, particularly in the case of commissions and illuminated manuscripts; book decoration and text often closely interact. In my codex , the content is also ordered into sections which are visually registered both by the miniatures at the beginning of each new piece of text and by the graduated hierarchy of initial letters (ranging from decorative initials spreading over several lines of text, to monochrome capital letters, or capitals embellished with a stroke of red ink). These help the reader to find their way around the text quickly.

Moreover, such sumptuous, extravagant book decorations give a manuscript a certain aura and grandeur; they are therefore often found in books which proclaim the word of God. The illuminations, however, also fulfil another purpose: the images are intended to help the beholder to contemplate, to get in tune with the content of the text, and to influence and steer the reader’s frame of mind and their devotion as they read, listen or reflect. This is also true of Cod. Guelf. 87.10. Aug. 12°. The miniatures correspond thematically with the text which follows them and can therefore be regarded as an aid to meditation.

An absurd marginal world

The function and meaning of the colourful bas-de-page scenes (from the French meaning 'bottom of the page'; in book illumination, this refers to drawings in the bottom margin of a page) is rather more difficult to classify and interpret in the medial concept of manuscripts.

Literature on this topic offers differing views on the function of drolleries. Evaluations of these illustrations range considerably; whilst from a didactical approach they are seen as solely decorative or are reduced to entertainment for the reader, others consider drolleries to be a significant element, a critical and satirical accompaniment to the text. This marginalia can certainly be attributed with a mnemonic effect: it helps the reader to find their way around the text quickly and to remember what particular sections are about, for example the part where the wild man is fighting a monster with a tree root.

It is also conceivable that the bizarre, chaotic world in the margins is meant to represent the antithesis of the text’s orderly inner world, hence making it possible to fully experience its deeper message and meaningfulness. The absurd marginal world  could, however, serve to warn the faithful against temptation and sin.

A Lapdog as a reference mark 

Furthermore, compositions of text, miniatures and marginalia are arranged in particular ways in relation to one another in the artwork as a whole, and they should be read and viewed accordingly. The drolleries help to make references and connections palpable; they create visual links throughout the book, between pages and sections, which might otherwise be impossible. For example, the small, white, rather chubby lapdog – an animal which shows up in two different places in Cod. Guelf. 87.10 Aug. 12° (fol. 56r and fol. 86r) – may function as a reference mark.

The first dog appears opposite a miniature which depicts St. Helen discovering the crucifix and the revival of a dead man. This is followed by prayers to the saint.

Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Library, Cod. Guelf. 87.10 Aug. 12°, fol. 56r. (CC BY-SA)

The second lapdog can be found in fol. 86r at the edge of the page; to the left sits a small naked boy playing with a brown dog. The miniature in fol. 85 depicts the martyrdom of St. Ursula and her followers.

Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Library, Cod. Guelf. 87.10 Aug. 12°, fol. 86r. (CC BY-SA)

Neither St. Helen nor St. Ursula are represented by a white dog as an attribute. Initial rudimentary interpretations of the meaning of white dogs in medieval iconography also provided no explanation. Dogs were deemed to be faithful companions to man as well as guards of house and home. Whilst a dark, shaggy dog was more likely to be associated with envy and wrath, a white dog could represent faith and fidelity.

It is conceivable that by repeating this symbol, the illustrator was alluding to the prayers to St. Ursula qua the above-mentioned recognition factor of the bas-de-page motif of the other litanies of saints in the prayer book.  The St. Ursula passage in fact appears separately (folios 42v-57r are a collection of prayers for different saints whereas the prayer for St. Ursula first appears in fol. 86r).

Merry wild sow with a barrow full of piglets

The merry wild sow mentioned in the title of this article also appears within the collection of prayers for different saints mentioned above. In fol. 53r, the pig catches the eye as she merrily pushes a barrow full of piglets through foliage and flowers:

Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Library, Cod. Guelf. 87.10 Aug. 12°, fol. 53r. (CC BY-SA)

Here too, my attempts to decode the symbolic references to the merry sow and to hence deduce the story in the margin and identify a text-image structure which would enrich the overall concept of the book were largely unsuccessful.  According to a biblical interpretation, despite their importance as a source of meat, even in medieval times, pigs generally had negative connotations.  Pigs were considered wicked, wild (e.g. in Psalm 80:14), impure (e.g. in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who as a swineherd in Palestine is so destitute that he longs to eat the food given to pigs, Luke 15:15) and greedy. The wild boar even represents the devil. And there is that well known saying ‘to cast pearls before swine’ (from Matthew 7:6).

In the prayer book, the drollery with the pigs and the barrow is opposite a miniature depicting a woman giving alms to the poor; to her right is an angel, her guardian angel (the prayers which follow are addressed to Eygenengel , the personal guardian angels of those praying). The angel is touching her right hand and holding a crown above her head. On her left sits a red demon grasping at her dress, true to the motto ‘angel on my right, devil on my left’.

Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Library, Cod. Guelf. 87.10 Aug. 12°, fol. 52v-53r. (CC BY-SA)

So the pig could be understood as an allusion to evil and impurity: one should protect oneself against these things and call on one’s guardian angel for help.  Additional arguments which support this interpretation can certainly be found in various dictionaries of saints. St. Anthony the Great is symbolised by a pig, amongst other attributes. The pig is actually a symbol of the Order of St. Anthony; its monks were allowed to let their swine graze freely to support their work caring for the poor.

The patron saint of pigs

The pig could also allude to the numerous devilish temptations which St. Anthony resisted when he chose to live as an ascetic hermit. There is even a story from the life of St. Anthony which could explain the barrow full of pigs. St. Anthony, to whom miracle healings were also attributed, was called to the court of Lombard to heal the king’s son. There he met a sow and her blind piglets; rather than chase them away, St. Anthony granted them sight on the grounds that he was not only there for people, but also for animals. Indeed, St. Anthony is the patron saint of domestic animals, in particular pigs.

St. Anthony was a well-known saint and would have been familiar to the reader of this prayer book. However, whether this was intended as an allusion to St. Anthony remains speculation.

Mischief in the margins

In the case of this prayer book, it can be said that the illuminator used a well-known repertoire of images to decorate the margins of the manuscript with drolleries. The illustrations amuse and entertain, they help the reader to orientate themselves in the text and perhaps also serve as a warning to the beholder against the many all too human weaknesses.

Whilst the iconographic-semiotic concept of this prayer book’s medial structure may not seem particularly profound, studying this and other colourful interwoven texts and images is rewarding. The mischievous, fantastical and merry goings- on in the margins and their undeniable vein of humour are surprising and shed light on the satirical side of the Middle Ages, an aspect which is often overlooked from a present perspective. This bizarre world, with its often absurd illustrations, is not only thought-provoking but also encourages the contemporary reader to decipher it and in so doing to get closer to the reality of medieval life and interpretations.

Related literature:

Reinhard Froehner, Kulturgeschichte der Tierheilkunde. Ein Handbuch für Tierärzte und Studierende, Vol. 2: Geschichte des deutschen Veterinärwesens. (Konstanz: Terra-Verlag, 1954) p. 88.

Katharina Georgie, Illuminierte Gebetbücher aus dem Umkreis der Nürnberger Pleydenwurff-Wolgemut-Werkstatt (Petersberg: Michael Imhoff Verlag, 2013) (Studien zur internationalen Architektur- und Kunstgeschichte, Vol. 102), pp. 83–96, 121–133, 193–198, p. 203.

Jennifer Hülsberg, ‘Drôlerien ‒ alles (Un-)Sinn?’ in Heinz Finger, Harald Horst (pub.), Mittelalterliche Handschriften der Kölner Dombibliothek. Viertes Symposion der Diözesan- und Dombibliothek Köln zu den Dom-Manuskripten (26. bis 27. November 2010), (Köln: Libelli Rhenani, Vol. 38, 2010), pp. 237–253.

Hanne Grießmann (M.A.) worked as a research assistant with associate professor Dr. Ursula Kundert on ‘Media History of the Psalms’, a sub-project of the MWW ‘Text and Frame’ research project. During this time, Grießmann worked with numerous manuscripts and prints from the Herzog August Library collection. Since October 2015, she has been writing her doctorate on Middle Low German prayer books from the Augustinian Marienberg convent (Augustiner-Chorfrauenstiften Marienberg vor Helmstedt und Heiningen bei Wolfenbüttel) as part of the ‘Repositories of Knowledge and Arsenal of Arguments’ doctoral programme at the University of Osnabrück and the Herzog August Library Wolfenbüttel.