Children will be children, it seems, even in the distant past.
It seems youngsters from centuries ago found the lure of a medieval manuscript too great and doodled in its margins. They scrawled a person, a horse or a cow, and what researchers believe may be images of the devil.
University of York historian Dr Deborah Thorpe enlisted the help of child psychologists to identify the drawings written in the pages of a 14th century book which originally came from a Franciscan convent in Naples.
They were probably drawn by children a couple of centuries later as the book found its way into the hands of the children who took to sketching in the margins.
Thorpe, a research fellow at the British university’s Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorders, said she came across the drawings by chance while carrying out research on a separate project.
“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?’ ”
Thorpe said child psychologists confirmed they were probably drawn by children aged four to six.
“The psychologists came up with a set of criteria for why we could say they were the work of children, for example the elongated shapes, the really long legs and the lack of a torso, the focus on the head.
“These are the things that are most important to children. If you compare them with the doodles that children make today they are really similar. It was just a case of detective work really.”
Thorpe added: “There are later examples of other historical children’s drawings, but this is the first time I think that children’s drawings in medieval books have been classified as the work of children using a set of psychological criteria.
“It is striking evidence of interactions between children and books in the medieval period. It shows how children back then enjoyed playing and learning, expressing themselves and allowing their imagination to take off, just like today’s children.
“Perhaps they were allowed to do it or perhaps they weren’t, it adds another human dimension to a fascinating story.”
In her paper, published in the journal Cogent Arts & Humanities, Thorpe wrote that scrutiny of the material features of the drawings indicated that there was more than one child artist involved.
She said the hesitant, jagged lines of the human contrasted with the smooth strokes in the adjacent animal, suggesting different artists.
In addition, there are minor differences in the ink colour and consistency between these two regions of the drawing. Also, there is smudging around the animal, which may suggest that an original attempt was erased.
Young hands, old books: Drawings by children in a fourteenth-century manuscript, LJS MS. 361
Deborah Ellen Thorpe
The study can be read here.