Medieval Doodler Draws a “Rockstar Lady” in a Manuscript of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy (Circa 1500)

Sloane 554 f 53

By the ear­ly 6th cen­tu­ry, the West­ern Roman Empire had effec­tive­ly come to an end after the depo­si­tion of the final emper­or and the instal­la­tion of Ger­man­ic kings. Under the sec­ond such ruler, Theodor­ic the Great, emerged one of the most influ­en­tial works of lit­er­a­ture of the Euro­pean Mid­dle Ages: The Con­so­la­tion of Phi­los­o­phy. Its author, sen­a­tor and philoso­pher Boethius, wrote the text while impris­oned and await­ing exe­cu­tion.

A con­ver­sa­tion the despon­dent author has with his muse, Lady Phi­los­o­phy, the book seeks the nature of hap­pi­ness and the nature of God, in the midst of great loss, dis­grace, and tyran­ny. The Con­so­la­tion of Phi­los­o­phy belongs to a long tra­di­tion of prison lit­er­a­ture that extends to Don Quixote, “Civ­il Dis­obe­di­ence,” and “Let­ter from a Birm­ing­ham Jail.” Almost a thou­sand years after Boethius’s 524 exe­cu­tion, one late Medieval read­er of his book—perhaps inspired by the text, or not—left the draw­ing you see above on the last page of a 15th cen­tu­ry Eng­lish illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script.


Such doo­dling was com­mon prac­tice at the time, notes Medieval book his­to­ri­an Erik Kwakkel. Blank pages in man­u­scripts “often filled up with pen tri­als, notes, doo­dles, or draw­ings.” But this par­tic­u­lar doo­dle “is not what you’d expect: a full-on draw­ing of a maid­en play­ing the lute, which she holds just like a gui­tar.” Boethius may have dis­missed poet­ry in his search for hap­pi­ness in the midst of despair, but his lit­er­ary efforts might put us in mind of poet Berthold Brecht, who famous­ly wrote while in exile from Ger­many in the 1930s, “In the dark times/Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing/About the dark times.”

As if to remind us of the neces­si­ty not only of phi­los­o­phy, but also of song in dark times, our anony­mous read­er drew a “rock­star lady,” whose pose con­notes noth­ing but pure joy. We could jux­ta­pose her with the joy­ful gui­tar pos­es of any num­ber of mod­ern blues and rock stars, who have played through any num­ber of dark times. The draw­ing appears in a trans­la­tion by John Wal­ton dat­ing from between 1410 and 1500, a cen­tu­ry in Europe with no short­age of its own polit­i­cal crises and tyran­ni­cal rulers. “Even in the dark­est of times,” wrote Han­nah Arendt in her essay col­lec­tion pro­fil­ing artists and writ­ers like Boethius and Brecht, “we have the right to expect some illu­mi­na­tion,” whether from phi­los­o­phy or poet­ry. We also have the right—the medieval doo­dler in Boethius’ book seemed to sug­gest some 500-odd years ago—to rock out.

via Erik Kwakkel

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Wear­able Books: In Medieval Times, They Took Old Man­u­scripts & Turned Them into Clothes

Medieval Cats Behav­ing Bad­ly: Kit­ties That Left Paw Prints … and Peed … on 15th Cen­tu­ry Man­u­scripts

Won­der­ful­ly Weird & Inge­nious Medieval Books

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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