Historian Discovers 800 Year Old Doodles in Old Books

Oct 3, 2014 1 comments

Some human behavior never change, such as the urge to doodle in the margin of a book. Historian Erik Kwakkel discovered this simple truth while pouring over some of the world’s oldest books and manuscripts at Leiden University, The Netherlands. Kwakkel is fascinated with “pen trials"—small sketches, doodles, and practice strokes a medieval scribe would make while testing the ink flow of a pen or quill. They usually involve funny faces, letter strokes, random lines, or geometric shapes and generally appear in the back of the book where a few blank pages could be found. Kwakkel finds them interesting because a scribe tends to write them in his native hand, rather than the stylized script they adapt when copying text.

“In some sense, these sketches are like fingerprints or signatures, little clues that reveal a bit about these long forgotten scribes who copied texts but who had no real opportunity to express themselves while working,” Kwakkel told to The Colossal.


A 15th-century doodle in the lower margin of a manuscript containing Juvenal’s Satires, a popular classical text used to teach young children about morals.

While many of Kwakkel’s discoveries are standard pen trials, other doodles he finds relate to a human concept as universal as topics discussed in these 13th and 14th century books such as love, morals, or religion. Specifically: boredom. It seems the tedium of reading through a philosophy textbook or law manuscript dates back to the very invention of books. Some of these scribbles were even made hundreds of years after a book’s publication, suggesting no margin is sacred when monotony is concerned.

See more doodles on Erik Kwakkel’s blog.


A man and a woman engaged in a game of bowling, circa 1300.


Pen trials from Oxford, Bodleian Library, Lat. misc. c. 66 (15th century).


Doodle discovered in a 13th-century law manuscript (Amiens BM 347).


Medieval smiley face. Conches, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 7 (main text 13th century, doodle 14th or 15th century).



800-year-old doodles found in a Missal, a book used during Holy Mass


800-year-old doodles found in a Missal, a book used during Holy Mass


Medieval dachshund. 13th century.


Shark with Napoleon hat. Paris, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, MS 98.


Medieval Batman. Paris, Bibliothèque Mazarine, MS 3475 (15th century).


Whale doodles found in 19th century logbooks of whaling vessels.


(Left) Medieval rockstar.  London, British Library, Sloane MS 554. (Right) Medieval air guitarist. Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 220 (9th century).



Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 111 I, 14th-century doodle.


Leiden, University Library, MS BPL 6 C (13th century).


  1. Your website shows off some of the most interesting stuff. I love it!


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