The Oddest Accidents We Have Found in Medieval Books

The drawings in this book are quite sophisticated
Some rather creative doodles by kids. Image by Erik Kwakkel via

Children’s drawings were fanciful

A Dutch writer in the 16th century adopted a hard-nosed attitude regarding kids and books, pretty much suggesting the two should never come into contact with each other — for the safety of the book. In the ancient text, apparently written in 1527 and titled “How One Shall Preserve All Books To Last Eternally,” the author listed eight rules for preserving a book. Some of the rules included things like not writing in the margins, not placing them too close to the fireplace, and not allowing little dirty fingers to peruse the books.

However, the author wrote the eighth rule after the manuscript was completed, and broke his own rule to do so.

And in that very last rule, he writes:

“Do not give your books to children.”

In the margin, of all places. Because allowing kids to read a beloved book will have deleterious consequences, he contends.

“Eighth, one should not let children learn from any book that one wants to preserve,” he wrote. “Because whatever comes into their hands, as we see, it either stays there or is ruined.”

But whenever kids did get their hands on a book, the doodles they left behind were fascinating.

Fascinating doodle left by a young child in this book
In medieval times, kids typically drew adults with square heads and rather long legs. Image by Cogent Arts and Humanities via the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries folio 26r.

In the photo above, we have what looks like a rather square-headed person and perhaps a cow or a goat. Obviously, this looks like a child’s drawing, especially, as noted by author Deborah Ellen Thorpe, writing for Cogent Arts and Humanities, since the human figure is reduced to its most important features — that rather squarish head and two long legs. Doodles similar to the one above abound throughout medieval literature, and they are often referred to as “tadpole figures.” Young children still have immature motor skills, and this is where the rather fanciful long arms and legs come in. Developmental psychologist Rosalind Arden has said in personal correspondence that the tadpole style of this drawing is typical for children who are about four years old. It’s not unusual for tadpole drawings to feature very long legs. It’s thanks to those long legs that the figure in the drawing above is almost twice as long as the creature. That changes over time as children improvise their ability to capture the correct height-width ratio of human figures, Thorpe writes.

But there’s another interesting facet to this drawing, one that also owes itself to a child’s habit of keeping things curiously compact. The figure’s eyes are filled in, further reducing the features to little more than a head and legs.