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Drolleries in manuscript 251

Manuscript 251, belonging to the collection of the Public Library of Bruges, was created at the end of the 13th century. It contains a multitude of figures in the margins at the beginning of each chapter. These are often scenes which are cheeky and curious in nature but intermingled with realistic representations of daily life.

Around 1250, Dominican Vincent van Beauvais (1190-1264) created one of the most encompassing encyclopaedia of the middle ages: the Speculum maius. This great collection was created to aid with preaching. There are three parts: the speculum naturale (32 books), the speculum doctrinale (18 books), and the Speculem historiale (31 books). Jacob van Maerlant made a Middle Dutch adaptation of the last part called the Spiegel historiael (1284-88).

Manuscript 251 belongs to the collection of the Public Library of Bruges. It was created at the end of the 13th century in the north of France, which at the time was a part of the County of Flanders. It contains the first nine books of the Speculum doctrinale. Various subjects are discussed, including rhetoric, geometry, astronomy, anatomy and law. What makes this manuscript so special are the various figures in the margins at the beginning of each chapter. These are called drolleries and are often in the form of a caricature, like the hybrid creatures wearing a miter or the woman playing a fiddle using a rake as a fiddlestick. These scenes can also have a cheeky edge, on f. 299v we can see a woman carrying a distaff chasing a white cat who is holding genitals in his muzzle.

These curious scenes aside, there are also realistic representations of daily life. F. 149r shows a popular ball game: the ‘choulen’ of ‘tsollen’. This ball game has similarities with hockey and was played on an open field with two teams and an egg-shaped ball, called the ‘choulette’, which had to hit the goal. The goals could be a barn door, village pump, church or mill and had a great distance between them. F. 149r shows two players, carrying a white and black batting stick. A third player is shouting instructions and a fourth player stands ready to intervene. The mill in the margin could possibly be one of the goals.

Several musical instruments can be found represented on the pages of manuscript 251. F. 191 shows two popular musical instruments: the one-handed flute and the drum. As the name suggests the one-handed flute is a flute you play singlehanded. This makes it possible for the fluteplayer to play the drum with their other hand. On this page you can also see a puppet show with an audience and a harping jester. All of this together is reminiscent of a travelling carnival.

The bagpipe is also represented (f. 1r, 222r, 254v). At the time it was one of the most important musical instruments in court culture. These images give us considerable information about the looks and methods of playing but they also loved to tease. On f. 1R we can see a man playing the bagpipe while another man is naked, waving at him and pointing towards his genitals, an obvious reference to the link between phallus/scrotum and shawm/air pocket.

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