Child doodles found in a Medieval manuscript. LJS 361, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries folio 26r.

Child Doodles Discovered in 14th Century Manuscript

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Researchers have discovered a set of children's doodles in the margins of a medieval manuscript. The discovery sheds new light on the knowledge and education of children in the Middle Ages and their similarities to children of today.  

A report recently published in the journal Cogent Arts & Humanities , described the remarkable 14th-century book from a Franciscan convent in Naples, which contains the doodles spotted in the margins. They are the work of mischievous little kids, and very similar to what children do nowadays.

According to Deborah Thorpe, an author of the study, the drawings were discovered by chance while researching an unrelated project. As an expert of the medieval manuscripts from the University of York in Canada, she believes that the drawings depict 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. I thought ‘this is really interesting, has anyone written anything about this?’' she said in a statement.

A child’s drawing of a person found in the manuscript. LJS 361, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries folio 23r.

Thorpe didn't have the knowledge to analyze the discovery properly, so she recruited several child psychologists. They came up with a set of criteria , which helped them to classify the sketches and determine the approximate age of the drawer. They checked the elongated shapes, the really long legs, the lack of a torso, and the focus on the head. There are similarities between the drawings that children make at specific ages. The researchers concluded the drawings likely came from children between the ages of 4 and 6 years old.

There are later examples of the historical children’s drawings, but Thorpe believes that this is the first time that children’s drawings in medieval books have been classified as the work of children with the use of a set of psychological criteria. It shows that children enjoyed playing and learning, expressing their imagination exactly like today's children.

The manuscript covers knowledge about an astronomy, biblical dates and tables for determining any day of the week between 1204 and 1512, religious sermons, and astrology.

Thorpe’s discovery, although impressive, is not the only or the oldest child’s drawing that has been found from the past. April Holloway from Ancient Origins reported in June 29, 2014 about another fascinating discovery. As she wrote: ''Archaeologists have unearthed six ancient Russian birch-bark texts in the historical city of Vekliky Novgorod in north-western Russia, according to a report in Voice of Russia. The discovery adds to the collection of more than 1,000 birch-bark texts, which have been immensely significant in changing traditional ideas about literacy rates in ancient Russia, opening a new page in the study of the Russian language, and shedding light on early northern Russian culture.

Birch-bark letter no. 202, mid-13th century, produced by a child.

Birch-bark letter no. 202, mid-13th century, produced by a child. Photo source:  Wikimedia

Among their authors and addressees of the birch-bark documents are priests, high officials, house owners, merchants, stewards, craftsmen, warriors, women, and even children. For example, the document contains spelling lessons and drawings made by a boy named Onfim, who is estimated to have been between 6 and 7 years old at the time.

The first birch bark letter was found on July 26, 1951 by Nina Fedorovna Akulova, and at least 1025 have been unearthed thereafter – 923 in Novgorod alone – typically dating from the period between late 11 th and early 15 th century. Almost all of them were written with styluses of bronze and iron, and never ink. The letters were preserved due to the swampy soil which isolated them from oxygen. Many of them are found in streets, because streets were paved with logs, which eventually sank into the soil, with additional layers burying older ones, including the letters.''

Top image: Child doodles found in a Medieval manuscript. LJS 361, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries folio 26r.

By Natalia Klimzcak

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