Medieval Book Historian Erik Kwakkel Discovers and Catalogs 800-Year-Old Doodles in Some of the World’s Oldest Books

For the past few years, medieval book historian Erik Kwakkel has been pouring through some of the world’s oldest books and manuscripts at Leiden University, The Netherlands, as part of his ongoing research on pen trials. Pen trials are the small sketches, doodles, and practice strokes a medieval scribe would make while testing the ink flow of a pen or quill. They usually involve funny faces, letter strokes, random lines, or geometric shapes and generally appear in the back of the book where there was generally some blank space. Kwakkel shares via email:

From a book historical perspective pen trials are interesting because a scribe tends to write them in his native hand. Sometimes, when they moved to a different writing culture (another country or religious house) they adapted their writing style accordingly when copying real text—books. The trials, however, are done in the style of the region they were trained in, meaning the individuals give some information about themselves away.

In some sense, these sketches are like fingerprints or signatures, little clues that reveal a bit about these long forgotten scribes who copied texts but who had no real opportunity to express themselves while working. Including additional sketches or even initials in these books was often forbidden.

Don’t look for a hero,
become your own.
Don’t look for a prince,
let him come to you.
Don’t look for success,
let it chase you.
Don’t just wait for the clouds to pass,
learn to dance with the rain instead.
Nikita Gill (via untamedunwanted)


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