The monks who liked to draw bottoms

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When the spectre of hunger has shrugged its shoulders and shuffled off to the nearest village; when the wild boars and brigands are separated from you by a nice thick wall, and there is wine in the cellar; why, shouldn’t life be complete?

One would think so. The countryside of England is littered with the crushed remains of one set of institutions which could do this for you, back in those grim middle ages.

The Holy Church- in particular, the Benedictine order- was wealthy indeed. To those who had, more was given; they had monasteries set up in all the most advantageous places. Mother church controlled water mills, fish farms, crops and liquor. Rich men feared for their souls and bought eternity with fat donations.

Life for a monk, compared to the villagers down the road, was incredibly comfortable.

It became so that all the chores of the monastery were done by servants and ‘lay brothers’- men who lived in the community and did manual labour. The monk was left to his monastic timetable:Matins at midnight, Lauds at three in the morning, Prime at six, mass. At noon, Sext, at three, None, Vespers at six, Compline at nine, and round and about again. With never more than three hours sleep, the monks would carry out tasks in between the daylight services.

The same four strong, well-built walls. The same routine, day after day. Fine for a mystic or a man of prayer: but if you were there to keep clothes on your back, oh, how tedious the whole thing could become.

Is that all there is? goes the song.

And for many monks, it was. They survived. They fed well. They worked. It was a life.

The power structure in these places was iron. An Abbot would have a Prior as second in command. And then monks could rise to become doctors, or archivists, or tutors.

Or scriveners.

Rich men would pay monasteries to create gorgeous volumes in their name as another passport to immortality. And the monks were trained to copy bibles and psalters, illustrating them with stunning embellishments.

The Scriptorium was the room where they worked. Often ill-lit, writing was to be an act of prayer. the scriptures were read out continuously, that they might become second nature to those who copied them. And according to a Prior from the tenth century – quoted by Germaine Greer inΒ The Obstacle Race –Β “Only try to do it yourself and you will learn how arduous is the writer’s task. It dims your eyes, makes your back ache, and knits your chest and belly together. It is a terrible ordeal for the whole body.”

In this spiritual straitjacket, copiers lived their lives.

But there was one sure way to rebel, silently, without attracting the attention of one’s superiors.

Look very carefully at the margins of books created at the time, and you will understand. Is it any wonder that the embellishments of the manuscript became at best secular, and at their sauciest, impishly naughty?

Bottoms and bawdiness abound.

My favourite example is The Gorleston Psalter, originally the property of the village church of the same name.: you can find a glorious digitised copy at The British Library here.

Written in at least three different hands, it is earthy. And barbed, and rebellious. But only if you look closely at the tiny illustrations. We will never know how such images came to inhabit a prayer book. But we can conjecture.Β Some illustrations poke fun at the reader:

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…whilst others are merely whimsical and fantastical….

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….and still others are very, very naughty indeed.

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Monks loved drawing people showing their bottoms. It was a feature of manuscripts at the time. It thumbed a silent nose at the boss – whoever one might interpret that as being.

And bawdiness passed the time of day.

With special thanks to the British Library’s Mediaeval and Earlier Manuscripts blog – a gem – which you can find here


57 thoughts on “The monks who liked to draw bottoms

    1. That’s a question shrouded in mystery. For none of the academics can get to the bottom of this strange ambiguous acceptance of bawdy speech and behaviour in mediaeval society. It’s the same with The Canterbury Tales, isn’t it? And it’s just possible that such images would not shock the benefactor, because they were everyday profanity which was totally accepted. So far: we have no way of knowing what those who funded these psalters had to say about the tiny asides.

    1. Indeed, Kathleen. And the doodles have given us an insight into what life was like in mediaeval society; for some of the drawings were not profane at all, but just scenes from agriculture or everyday life. A wonderful, florid eduction for us

  1. Thanks also for stirring a memory of my departed Medieval History Prof, Dr. Jan Hallenbeck. He would have adored this post-

    1. I would all depend, I fear, on how much money he had, Roger. The Church was quite partial to it, I believe.

      Penniless monks wold have to resign themselves to waiting 650 years for Tippex.

    1. I must do some more reading around it, Barbara; I have no idea how much the vocation of monk intruded on the skills the monks learned. I’d say their identity was pretty wrapped up in the church – some reading required, I think!

  2. To set a few things in order, Kate, the monks lived in fertile places because they had made them that way by their labour. True, some orders became corrupt, and then such things crept in. But people came along to revive the spirit of the order.
    You should read “the waters of silence ” by Thomas Merton to get a true picture of monastic development.

    1. Hi Dad πŸ™‚ I drew my information from primary sources: the facsimiles are in the links above. The conclusions are not my own, but reached by academics from The British Library.

  3. I had no idea medieval monks were so ribald! I like the idea of mischievous monks putting some subversive little paintings in their work. I bet it gave them a fun sense of satisfaction. I would have enjoyed watching them add these little touches to the manuscripts to see the expressions on their faces as they worked.

  4. One of the things I love about history is how bawdy just about everybody was. My upbringing tended to gloss over anything naughty or seedy, and it left me with a view that historical figures weren’t real people. It was only in my thirties that I started my own study of history, and I see it so differently now. We relate to people, whether they lived 1,000 years ago or 100, by the little asides that show their humanity. Like these drawings. I love them.

    1. Sp pleased to hear it, Andra. To me, they are the stuff of life. they may be shocking to some but they are life as it really is, not as people would mask it. Do have a look at the psalter itself. It is an amazing read.

  5. Huh. The more things change, the more they stay the same at least in terms of the rigidity of life for “men of the cloth” being a fertile breeding ground for hypocrisy and perversion.

    1. Yet to me these drawings are honest. They certainly tell us more about the time than anything else does, and about attitudes of the day. Their motive seems to be an impish humour which rescues these drawings – often graphic- from being furtive and uncomfortable. It’s why I felt I could publish them. This is how humanity was, in England, at that time.

    1. If only I could get to their reasons, Penny: whilst boredom and subversion are both on the table as possible motives, academics still find the fact they appeared in commissioned works of art baffling.

      1. Look at Chaucer and Shakespeare, it’s only in the last few hundred years that we’ve decided that normal body parts and functions are highly shush-shush and even don’t exist. πŸ˜‰

      1. It was a fascinating period in history, Kate. The words ‘ribald’ and ‘bawdy’ always come to mind. It seems that the monks were no different to the peasants down at the local ale house!

  6. Isn’t it ridiculous what some people have always tended to impose upon themselves in the name of religion. No wonder these little acts of rebellion occurred. OR … were they slyly encouraged to go for it by some of the bored monks who could then sneak cheap thrills every now and again?

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