Doodle of man and cow
July 13, 2016

Researcher finds first example of children’s doodles from the medieval period

They say that children are our future, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also leave their mark on the past.

According to a new report published in the journal Cogent Arts & Humanities, doodles spotted in the margins of a 14th-century book from a Franciscan convent in Naples appear to be the work of mischievous little scamps.

Study author Deborah Thorpe, a medieval manuscript expert at the University of York in Canada, said she found the drawings by chance while researching for an unrelated project. The drawings appear to be of a human, a cow or horse and some kind of demon or devil.

“I was looking through a database of medieval manuscripts online and I found images of these beautiful doodles in the margins and to me they looked like they were done by children,” she said in a statement. “I thought ‘this is really interesting, has anyone written anything about this?’”

Second doodle in the set

(Credit: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries folio 22r.)

Working with modern-day psychologists

To assess the doodles, Thorpe recruited several child psychologists, who concluded the drawings likely came from children between the ages of 4 and 6 years old.

“The psychologists came up with a set of criteria for why we could say they were the work of children, for example the elongated shapes, the really long legs and the lack of a torso, the focus on the head,” Thorpe said. “These are the things that are most important to children. If you compare them with the doodles that children make today they are really similar. It was just a case of detective work really.

doodle3

LJS 361, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries folio 23r.

The manuscript itself covers astronomy, astrology, religious sermons, biblical dates and tables for determining any day of the week between 1204 and 1512 – all subjects that were likely dull to the children who came across them.

The University of York researcher noted that there are later examples of historical children’s drawings, but “this is the first time I think that children’s drawings in medieval books have been classified as the work of children using a set of psychological criteria.

“It is striking evidence of interactions between children and books in the medieval period,” Thorpe said. “It shows how children back then enjoyed playing and learning, expressing themselves and allowing their imagination to take off, just like today’s children.

“Perhaps they were allowed to do it or perhaps they weren’t, it adds another human dimension to a fascinating story.”

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Image credit: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries folio 26r.