Why Butt Trumpets & Other Bizarre Images Appeared in Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts

In illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts, Medieval Europe can seem more like Mon­ty Python and the Holy Grail than the grim tales of grey-faced, mildewed kings, monks, knights, and peas­ants turned out by the Hol­ly­wood dozen. Yes, life could be bru­tal, bloody, dis­ease-rid­den, but it could also be absur­dist and unin­ten­tion­al­ly hilar­i­ous, qual­i­ties that reach their apex in the weird­ness of Hierony­mus Bosch’s “painful, hor­ri­ble” musi­cal instru­ments in his Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights.

While Bosch paint­ed his night­mar­ish cacoph­o­nies, Medieval scribes’ cats peed and left inky foot­prints on 15th cen­tu­ry man­u­scripts, with­in whose illus­trat­ed pages, rab­bits play church organs, valiant knights do bat­tle with giant snails, and a naked man blows a trum­pet with his rear end (a pre­cur­sor to the man in Bosch’s paint­ing with a flute stuck in his rear.) “These bizarre images,” TED Ed notes, “paint­ed with squir­rel-hair brush­es on vel­lum or parch­ment by monks, nuns, and urban crafts­peo­ple, pop­u­late the mar­gins of the most prized books from the Mid­dle Ages.”

The ani­mat­ed video les­son at the top by Michelle Brown “explores the rich his­to­ry and tra­di­tion of illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts” in their eccen­tric­i­ty and seem­ing silli­ness. The ani­mal motifs in mar­gin­al illus­tra­tions were nei­ther aim­less doo­dles nor inside jokes. They were alle­gor­i­cal fig­ures descend­ed from the menageries of Medieval bes­tiaries, repeat­ed the­mat­i­cal­ly to rep­re­sent human vices and virtues. Rab­bits, for exam­ple, rep­re­sent­ed lust, and their music-mak­ing was a vir­tu­ous sub­li­ma­tion of the same.

These asso­ci­a­tions weren’t always so clear, espe­cial­ly when they were explic­it­ly reli­gious. The por­cu­pine pick­ing fruit from its spine could rep­re­sent either dev­il or sav­ior, depend­ing on con­text. The uni­corn, which can only be killed with its head in the lap of a vir­gin, might stand for sex­u­al temp­ta­tion or the sac­ri­fice of Christ. But the few read­ers in this man­u­script cul­ture would have rec­og­nized the ref­er­ences and allu­sions, although, like all signs, the illus­tra­tions com­mu­ni­cate sev­er­al dif­fer­ent, even con­tra­dic­to­ry, mean­ings at once.

And what of the butt trum­pet? It is “like­ly short­hand to express dis­ap­proval with, or add an iron­ic spin to, the action in the text.” The butt trum­pet, ladies and gen­tle­men, is as adver­tised: that most ven­er­a­ble of expres­sions, the fart joke, to which there is no wit­ty reply and which—as scat­o­log­i­cal humor can do—might be sly­ly sub­ver­sive polit­i­cal cri­tique. Lit­er­ate or not, Medieval Euro­peans spoke a lan­guage of sym­bols that stood in for whole folk tra­di­tions and the­olo­gies. The butt trum­pet, how­ev­er, is just objec­tive­ly, crude­ly fun­ny, prob­a­bly as much to the artists who drew them as to those of us, hun­dreds of years lat­er, encoun­ter­ing them for the first time. See sev­er­al more exam­ples here and learn more about Medieval and Renais­sance man­u­scripts here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lis­ten to a Record­ing of a Song Writ­ten on a Man’s Butt in a 15-Cen­tu­ry Hierony­mus Bosch Paint­ing

The Flute of Shame: Dis­cov­er the Instrument/Device Used to Pub­licly Humil­i­ate Bad Musi­cians Dur­ing the Medieval Peri­od

Why Knights Fought Snails in Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts

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

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