• PrintMag

What Made Scribes Laugh?

Early graphic wit can be traced back to anthropomorphic animals that were given symbolic guises by renegade social critics, who used them to represent aspects of human folly.  However, the earliest graphic design humor originated in early Christian illuminated manuscripts around the eighth century.  These are the first examples of the primary graphic design ingredient, the letterform, being seamlessly tied to an image.  (For an excellent discussion on this subject, read Letter and Image by Massin [Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1970].)  It is in these odes to The Word that

Dragons and serpents slithered their way into manuscripts during the ninth century, their scales, tails, and tendrils interweaving with the text in illegible compositions.  Likewise, pictures of exotic vegetation and foliage, witty in terms of their placement on the page, began growing like kudzu on other manuscripts of the same period.  Eventually, these intricate visual decorations evolved from truly biblical allegories and symbols into nightmarish creatures, including quadrupeds with human heads, two-headed birds or griffins, humans with paws, plants with beaks, and winged cattle – similar to medieval gargoyles, which anticipated nineteenth-century surrealistic imagery.  Many of these initials and marginal decorations had no relationship whatsoever to their texts, and it seems that the illuminators (or designers) were not just being comic or playful, but delinquent in their duties.  Actually, Massin writes that the scribes and illuminators from different monasteries competed with each other, as if in some obsessively perverse design competition, to see who might achieve the most outrageous visual folly.

In the fourteenth century, Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles were mimicked in period letterforms.  The former organically wed excessive ornament to function; the latter featured minimal ornament with a purely formal or aesthetic role.  With both, however, visual humor of the kind found in architectural decoration was frequently replicated in the letters.  During the middle to late Renaissance, the rules of geometry began influencing concepts of beauty, and so governed the infant art of typography, which as one of its tenets rejected overly decorated (and, by extension, humorous) letterforms.  Eventually, the Romanesque, Gothic, and later even Baroque modes of decorative lettering became popular in books and other forms of printing, ultimately influencing a style of humorous graphics found centuries later in commercial typography and design.

During the long interval between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, technological and commercial advances significantly altered the role of graphics in society from elitist to populist.  Hence, graphic humor became more varied.  The communications history of the nineteenth century was heavily molded by the confluence of political, social, and technological advancements.  This period of both flowering enlightenment and strict repression had a strong impact on visual humor.

[All illustrations from Letter and Image by Massin, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1970.)


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