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ON THE MARGINS OF THINGS

All through elementary school, we had a spelling teacher named Miss Affleck.  In her room we were assigned spelling lists of words we needed to memorize, given spelling tests on them, and taught adages like “there is a lie in belief” and “there is a rat in separate.”  Maybe it was to relieve the tediousness of teaching spelling all of the time or just because it was a passionate obsession of hers, Miss Affleck not only treated us to everything she knew about her beloved Middle Ages but also taught us to pen “illuminated manuscripts” of our own with flat nubbed pens, inks in all kinds of splendid colors, and anything we wanted to draw in the margins.

In an article subtitled “When the Edges Take Center Stage,” Anika Burgess motes “countless examples of unusual marginalia” in Medieval manuscripts “monkeys playing the bagpipes, centaurs, knights in combat with snails, naked bishops, and strange human-animal hybrids that seem to defy categorization.”

One day, Miss Affleck brought in illustrations from the Bayeux Tapestry, a huge, long depiction of the Battle of Hastings (1066) in crewel wool embroidery.  I have never been interested in men slaughtering each other, which made up the main theme of the central panel, but along the edges were all kinds of animals (some of them fantastic), hunting scenes, men and women farming, other men and women who seemed to be tumbling all over each other, and lots of birds. 

Although in the 1070s, when the Tapestry was created, women embroiderers had not yet been supplanted by male guilds, they were commissioned to chronicle the standard heroic deeds of male society.  Nevertheless, right out in public, they wove a secret feminine iconography all along the edges of patriarchy, a message of their own.  Many of the Bayeux Tapestry animals, for example, derive from Aesop’s moral fables, and may constitute women Embroiderers’ commentaries on the central action, and is it possible that the delightful scenes of daily Medieval life represent their preference for peacetime pursuits over military violence?   Is it any coincidence that the Tree of Life motif occurs frequently, even when the central panel is strewn with corpses and body parts?

 

Gale Owen-Crocker speculates about these marginalia in an intriguing article about  “Squawk talk: commentary by birds in the Bayeux Tapestry.”

 “At several points the birds in the upper border appear to take a keen interest in the armed knights … but they disappear from the bottom border during the Battle of Hastings.” On the border of the scene depicting King Harold’s defeat, the birds’ necks are all tied in knots, “graphically demonstrating the strangulation of Harold’s prestige and ambition”. (see also Mike Pole in “1066 and the Dead Parrott)

That’s what doodles actually do, don’t they? We scribble them in the margins of our text books and lecture notes to testify to our presence in this deal, providing an edgy commentary and a touch of wry humor, subversive little announcements that we are there, even if merely on the edges of things, with a right to our own quirky takes about what is going on in the middle.    

Will the day come when a critical mass of edgy people pile up in such numbers on the margins of society that the margins implode, and we quirky eccentrics become centric after all?

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