Badische LandesBibliothek, St Peter Perg. 92 detail

Medieval Speech Bubbles

This blog frequently highlights parallels between medieval and modern technology and media. My recent posts on SpamGPS and Selfies in medieval times are good examples of that. As odd as this may sound, as a medieval book historian I see such parallels with modern concepts all the time: all you need is a pair of eyes and a little imagination. A few days ago, however, I encountered (and tweeted) a parallel I had never seen before: a drawing with the appearance of a page from a modern comic book (Fig. 1, tweet here).

British Library, Stowe 49 (14th century)
Fig. 1 – British Library, Stowe MS 49, fol. 122r (c. 1300) – Source

The drawing from c. 1300 shows a group of people walking, some of them with a walking stick in their hand. You can almost hear the sing-songs in the background. As it turns out, this merry scene bears more than one parallel to a modern comic book story.

Speech bubbles
According to the description of the British Library we are looking at a group of travellers conversing in English. What the description does not mention, however, is something that is rarely seen in medieval drawings: the different parts of conversation are given the appearance of speech bubbles. That is to say, just like in modern comic books, sentences are visually connected to the individual who utters them, by means of a tiny line (Fig. 2).

British Library, Stowe 49, fol. 122r, detail
Fig. 2 – British Library, Stowe MS 49, fol. 122r, detail

Also in parallel to modern comic books, the story that unfolds is funny and familiar. The art historian Lucy Freeman Sandler has devoted considerable attention to this scene (a transcription and literal translation is found in this publication). Using her work, while rewording her literal translation, the following conversation may be overheard:

The figure on the left starts, with a strange mantra: “They die because of heat, they die because of heat.” Then the two young people on his right speak, probably addressing their father [according to Sandler], who is walking behind them: “Sir, we die of cold!” The father, carrying a heavy toddler, orders them to stop whining: “Behold your little brother in front of us, he is only wearing a hood.” (He is right, because he is otherwise naked.) Then the toddler speaks, uttering universal toddler sounds: “Wa we”. Finally the two children in the back come into play (Fig. 2). “Sir, I am carrying too much weight,” says the one on the left.  The one on the right closes the conversation by comparing his own misery to that of his brother and father, stating “It is not they who carry the heaviest burden.”

The Middle English scene is familiar to many of us. We are shown a family en route to an unknown location (as if it were an alternative version of the Canterbury Tales). The young ones are verbally poking at each other, and complain about the temperature and the weight of their suitcases. It is the medieval version of a modern parent’s nightmare: being on the road with a crying toddler and whiny kids that egg each other on.  “Are we there yet?”

Banderole

Lons Angeles, Getty Museum, MS 66 (
Fig. 3 – Los Angeles, Getty Museum, MS 66 – Source

Books before print had another way to make a silent figure on the page speak: the banderole. This clever device gave the decorator the ability to make someone deliver a short statement. Short, because it had to fit on a tiny scroll (see a collection of them here and in this blog post). In Fig. 3, for example, we see a fool repeat the words whispered in his ear by the devil: “There is no God” (Non est deus). The speaker holds the tip of the scroll in his hand, so as to claim the words as his own. It also happened that the speaker was pointing at the banderol, often touching it with his finger.

Schøyen Collection MS 33 (14th century)
Fig. 4 – Schoyen Collection MS 33 (14th century) – Source

Such points of contact (holding the scroll or touching it) were particularly important when an image presented more than one speaking person. It allowed the viewer to identify who was saying what. Fig. 4 shows a classroom where two teachers appear to be in a lively debate. One is holding the scroll, the other is pointing at it, each firmly securing the text to their own person.

Interesting in light of the comic book parallel is that the banderole was not always held in or close to the speaker’s hand: it could also flow from his or her mouth. While such cases are less common, they have a strikingly modern appearance because of the banderole’s white background, which creates the illusion of a real text bubble (Fig. 5).

Paris, BnF, lat. 11978 (15th century)
Fig. 5 – Paris, BnF, lat. 11978 (15th century) – Source, found via
Frankfurt, Staatsbibliothek Ms. barth. 42
Fig. 6 – Frankfurt, Staatsbibliothek, Ms. barth. 42 (12th century)

Not all banderoles present such a “live” text. Some label a scene, while others clarify the identity of a person. For example, the banderole in Fig. 6 introduces the twelfth-century illuminator Guda, who decorated the book in question, but it does not present direct speech (more about the image in this post). Instead, it is the medieval equivalent of tagging a person in an image.

No bubbles
Then there are, finally, manuscripts where direct speech is written in mid air, unsupported by a banderole or a bubble. In order to relate the uttered text to a given person, the scribe wrote the lines in such a way that they appeared to flow from the speaker’s mouth. The result are wavy lines of text that dance across the page. A great example is seen in Fig. 7. This miniature is part of a cycle on the life and work of the scholar Raymond Lull (d. 1316). Here he is shown discussing with Thomas Méysier, his student and disciple. The images in the cycle were made under personal supervision of Thomas, who also compiled the contents of the manuscript, which presents a compilation of Lull’s work called the Electorium parvum sue breviculum (more here).

Karlsruhe, Badische LandesBibliothek, St Peter Perg. 92 (14th century)
Fig. 7 – Karlsruhe, Badische LandesBibliothek, St Peter Perg. 92 (14th century) – Source

Although serious in subject matter, the conversation between the master and the student has a funny, almost grotesque appearance. Over a big and authoritative pile of books we see the scholars engaged in a lively discussion. Arguments fly across the page. It looks like the scribe is trying to help the viewer keep track of the discussion through the use of different colours (red and black). Also, the scribe presents the conversation in such a way that each component begins with a line that sticks out slightly. Cleverly, the extended tip is found next to the speaker’s mouth, leaving no doubt as to who is saying what. No bubble required.

Acknowledgments – I wish to thank Thijs Porck (Leiden) for his help with the Middle English translation of the scene in Fig. 1. My PhD student Jenneka Janzen (Leiden) introduced me to the Karlsruhe manuscript in Fig. 7.

38 thoughts on “Medieval Speech Bubbles”

  1. Terrific especially translation of words ‘spoken’. SOOOOOOO frustrating to come across similar and not able to read ‘old’ languages!

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  2. You wrote: ” I see such parallels with modern concepts all the time: all you need is a pair of eyes and a little imagination.”

    Perfect description of why I enjoy your insights. For some reason, I take comfort on the fact that there are many parallels. Makes me feel at one with my ancestors.

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  3. Great to see all these calligraphic goodies,really wonderful,tahnk you so much,a real treat, gald to see that there so much interrest still.

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  4. There’s another good example of how the medieval cartoons look like: a Bayeux Tapestry, an extremely long (70m!) cloth swathe with the history of Noman conquest of England on it, from its very beginning to the Battle of Hastings (there was probably something more, but the last scenes were destroyed or cut off). It presents a sequence of circa 50 scenes with Latin descriptions, reminding viewers of today photo stories in newspapers or cartoons. The only thing it lacks is the speech bubbles:)

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  5. I’m curious — about “non ē dev.” You gloss it as Latin: “non est deus”, but isn’t that only half the story? My first reaction was that it was likely to be a vernacular Romance version of the sentence, and that the loss of the terminal -st and -s would be consistent with the langues d’Oïl local to Noyon.

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  6. The words read – in Latin – “non est deus” [actually deu-us], which is also what other scholars have read. There is no s missing as it is embedded in the us-abbreviation (the curl). I’m inclined to stick with the traditional Latin reading.

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