Marginalia Profiles: Figure Drawings in CRRS Collections

Speculum morale totius Sacre Scripture a Reuerendissimo Domino Johanne Vitali ... alphabetico ordine perutile editum et hucusq[ue] non impressum ; cumq[ue] triplici tabula iure quoda[m] materias singulares [et] quotatio[n]es artificio ad folioru[m] [et] versiculorum numerum remittente.

In a chapter titled “Of showing Due Propriety in the Custody of Books,” included in his fourteenth-century essay collection on librarianship and the love of books, Richard De Bury  sternly censures those who would mark in them: “those shameless youths, who as soon as they have learned to form the shapes of letters, decorate the margins of books with alphabets and similar irrelevancies just to try the fitness of their pens.” This perspective persists to the present day: marking up books is often met with surprise, displeasure, even disgust. However, the drawings and other marks made along the edges of a page are one of the only ways we have to study the ways earlier readers interacted with, thought about, or used their books. Though often confusing and opaque, markings in books can tell us something about how readers thought and lived. 

This exhibit focuses on a lighthearted category of marginalia: figure drawings. Marginalia that depict human figures specifically invite questions of how readers imagined people, whether the book’s characters or other readers. The human figure is an enduring subject in visual art, and marginal illustration is no exception. People have been doodling stick figures and funny faces in their books for hundreds of years. 

This exhibit highlights ten widely differing examples of figure drawings in Renaissance era texts. Silly and serious, quick sketches and full scenes, these depictions offer a look into how readers hundreds of years ago saw themselves and their fellow humans, and in the process connect us to past reading and artistic practices. The ambiguity in motivation inherent in marginalia leaves us with more questions than answers, but there are patterns of similarity between these visualizations of people that provide fodder for thought.

One of the main goals of marginalia studies is to use the traces of readers past to think about how people used books and how they related to them. A text is its content, but also its ink and paper, binding and organization. The layout and size of a book changes the way people interact with it: some of the larger drawings would not have been possible in smaller books, or on a page with print on it. By highlighting the material properties of texts, this exhibit highlights them in such a way that their material context is still discernible: some pictures are upside down, some seem small, but their varied characteristics all offer a look into how the marginalia relate to the work they modify. 

One caveat: digital representations are not the same as a physical object, and details from these drawings may not be visible in this digital format. All the books featured in this exhibit are from the collection of the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, located on the third floor of E.J. Pratt Library, and are available for you to learn from and explore. Marginalia can be many different things — a doodle or rumination, lighthearted or critical, absentminded or purposeful — but each one reveals the humanity of past readership in some way. Though the people who made these drawings are gone, they have left behind indelible remnants of their existence, which we now get to enjoy. 


Acheson, Katherine. Visual Rhetoric and Early Modern English Literature. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013.

Burgess, Anika. “The Strange and Grotesque Doodles in the Margins of Medieval Books: When the edges take center stage.” Atlas Obscura. 9 May 2017, accessed 15 July 2019.

Jackson, H.J. Marginalia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Lerer, Seth. “Devotion and Defacement: Reading Children's Marginalia.” Representations 118, no. 1 (2012): pp. 126 - 153.

Mallet, Katherine. “Personhood.” Threewalls Exhibition, December 2–January 20, 2007, accessed 15 July 2019. 

Orgel, Stephen. The Reader in the Book. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Stoddard, Roger. Marks in Books, Illustrated and Explained. Cambridge: Houghton Library, Harvard University, 1985.

Sherman, William. Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.



Research and curation of this exhibit was conducted by Megan E. Fox as part of a library practicum in special collections. Megan is a Master’s student in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto (2018-2020), concentrating in Library Science with a collaborative specialization in Book History & Print Culture. In addition to working on her practicum at the CRRS, she is also a Graduate Student Assistant at the Fisher Rare Book Library and a Printing Apprentice at the Massey College Bibliography Room. She holds a B.A. with honours in English and Global Studies from the University of Kansas. She is grateful for the significant assistance of Dustin Meyer, Ariana Sider, Taylor Tryburski and Dr. Natalie Oeltjen. 



Marginalia Profiles: Figure Drawings in CRRS Collections