“What’s happening here?” medieval mems— the art of Middle Ages. Part I

Hey Medium! Pavel here.

No one will argue that Middle Age was crazy. And medieval pictures depicted this better than anything else. When we look at these pictures most likely the very first question pops up on our minds will be «What the heck is going on here?».

There is also a whole meme subgenre for that, like medieval art memes and I want to breakdown the real meaning of those pictures, their history, the plot. I think this could an interesting exercise.

The tale of the three living and the three dead

The legend of the three living and the three dead most probably comes from France but also known in England as well. The tale dating back to the 13th century, even the beginning of 1200 AD.

Miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead, with the Anglo-Norman poem ‘Le dit des trios morts et trios vifs’ below, from the De Lisle Psalter, England (East Anglia), c. 1308 — c. 1340

Legend. There is a lot of versions of the legend, I’ll try to retell it in the most shorter way with interesting details.

Three young noblemen (a duke, a count, and a prince) lost while they were on a boar hunt. They lose their way in mist. Suddenly, starting out of a wood three walking corpses appear, described in graphically hideous terms, in varying states of decay — the first one just started to rot, the second corpse has decomposed more than the first and the third one depicted as a rotten obnoxious corpse with many injuries and without some parts of the body. Also, the first two corpses wore mantles — the first mantle was a little shabby and the second one completely worn out — just rotten rags.

The young men express shock and dismay at the sight, while the three corpses admonish them to consider the transience of life and to improve their behavior before it is too late. The dead speak to the three rich men, urging them to repent:

Such as I was you are, and such as I am you will be. Wealth, honor and power are of no value at the hour of your death.
zzThree noblemen were hunting in the countryside when they came across three rotting corpses. France, c. 1490

The Three Living cry out: “I am afraid”, “Lo, what I see!”, and “Methinks these be devils three”.

And the Three Dead reply: “I was well fair”, “Such shall you be”, and “For God’s love, beware by me”.

The hideous creatures were undead reflections of the three nobles, and they cried out an angry warning. Ghent, c. 1500
The Three Living and the Three Dead, folio 322r

Like I mentioned It’s a very popular legend with many version and each version has their own details, but I described the base. There are also similar or related legends like this:

Dance of Death

Another popular subject in the Middle Ages — Dance of Death or Danse Macabre. And like the previous plot, a lot of memes came from it.

So, each time when you see a dancing skeleton or skeleton doing some weird stuff with or near to a human — highly likely it’s a “Dance Macabre” or “The three living and the three death”.

The original picture of the meme above is Feyerabend’s watercolour “Basel’s dance of death”

Johann Rudolf Feyerabend, Basel’s dance of death, 1806

The dance of death also called danse macabre, a medieval allegorical concept of the all-conquering and equalizing power of death, expressed in the drama, poetry, music, and visual arts of western Europe mainly in the late Middle Ages. The concept is very simple — everyone dies no matter who are you — a pope, emperor or child the dead leading them all to the grave, everyone will have a dance with the great reaper.

Dance of Death by Bernt Notke (1463–66)

Most often Dance of Death is a one long picture or multiple pictures and each section or picture depicts different levels of society, but only one thing is the same — Death.

1. The Expulsion from Paradise, 2. Adam Tills the Soil, 3. The Emperor
4. The King, 5. The Bishop, 6. The Abbot
7. The Abbess, 8. The Nobleman, 9. The Judge
10. The Advocate, 11. The Senator, 12. The Monk
13. The Old Woman, 14. The Astrologer, 15. The Miser
16. The Knight, 17. The Old Man, 18. The Lady
19. The Duchess, 20. The Ploughman, 21. The Child. Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death (1523–5) — publicdomainreview.org/collections/hans-holbeins-dance-of-death-1523-5

“The Vows of the Peacock”

Before we will go deeper and I’ll tell you about the man with his finger in his ass, this is a picture from “Vows of the Peacock” an illuminated manuscript from around 1350 by Jacques de Longuyon.

Jacques de Longuyon, Vows of the Peacock, in French, c. 1350

It was one of the most popular romances of the 14th century and introduces the concept of the Nine Worthies. In this poem, warriors of Alexandr the Great make their vows over a roasted peacock.

The peacock: A symbol of royalty. A symbol of immortality because the ancients believed that the peacock had flesh that did not decay after death.

In this knight's ritual, the Knights declared their commitment to the Crusade.

Vows of the Peacock — https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Q17640582

Later, de Longuyon will write “Vows of the Sparrow Hawk” where Heinrich VII and his knights make vows over the sparrowhawk.

Like I mentioned, “The Vows of the Peacock” was very popular back then and is telling us about the Nine Worthies — knights, warriors, heroes,… whatever — the greatest people for short — personification of the chivalrous ideal.

Okay, but «who was in the Nine Worthies?» you may ask (I know you don’t) but 👇

Three righteous pagans:

  1. Hector (the great hero of Troy),
  2. Alexander the Great (representative of Greece),
  3. Julius Caesar (representative of Rome).

Three honest Jews (from biblical history):

  1. Joshua,
  2. David,
  3. Judah Maccabee.

And three good Christians:

  1. King Arthur,
  2. Charlemagne,
  3. Gottfried of Bouillon.

Now let’s come back to the man with the finger in the ass.

The image above depicts Fesonas and Cassiel the Baudrain Playing Chess. But the man in the left margin doesn’t have any connection to the image subject.

Instead, there are a few version of origin theory.

The first one is connected to manicula. This word comes from the Latin word for “little hand”. The drawings of tiny hands were used in the margins of manuscripts starting in the Middle Ages and continuing through the Renaissance before falling out of favor during the 19th century. They were used then essentially as a highlighter or bold type is used today.


Different authors have different styles of manicula and sometimes to highlight a section they didn’t use manicula at all, instead, they drew illustrations.

In Fact, the drew crazy illustrations just for fun — without any purpose, just to keep themselves entertained.

I know, there is also a finger but this finger pointing in the ass and this manuscript has a lot of similar (by craziness) drawings across all pages, so I don’t think that it’s a manicula.

Also, drawings from the manuscript:

the second theory is simpler but to me way more believable. So, I think we can close the case if I say — the man with the finger in the ass is just a joke, a funny doodle and nothing more. Of course, the man could be a vicious boss of the monk who forces him to write the manuscript but we will never know it for sure.

I’ll finish this part by one of the quotes in margins.

Thank God, it will soon be dark