Dr. F. (Erik) Kwakkel is a research scholar of paleography and codicology at Leiden University’s Centre for the Arts in Society. For those who are not aware of the term, paleography actually refers to the study of historical scripts and writing systems, in order to decipher and more importantly, date the various ancient manuscripts accurately. When he is not teaching graduate students, Kwakkel is usually too busy reading medieval books and manuscripts, in an attempt to catalog some of the world’s oldest surviving pen trials!
Pen trials are defined as random, and often hilarious, pieces of scribbling and doodling that a medieval writer would indulge in while checking the ink flow of his quill( and sometimes, even out of boredom!). As part of his ongoing research on the history of doodles, the Netherlands-based professor has been going through books dating as far back as the 13th century.
The doodles are generally in the form of miniature sketches, comical faces, arbitrary lines, letter strokes, simple geometric shapes and even funny caricatures. The scribbles are usually found at the back of a book and also, along the margins of individual pages. Some of these medieval pen trials were actually made several hundred years after a book’s publication!
Talking about his project, Kwakkel said:
From a book historical perspective pen trials are interesting because a scribe tends to write them in his native hand. Sometimes, when they moved to a different writing culture (another country or religious house) they adapted their writing style accordingly when copying real text—books. The trials, however, are done in the style of the region they were trained in, meaning the individuals give some information about themselves away.
According to Kwakkel, pen trials are actually more than just products of a bored mind. Much like fingerprints and signatures, these random sketches reveal the personality of the scribbler. Furthermore, many of these doodles, found in 13th and 14th century books, deal with the popular debates on universal topics such as love, religion, ethics and morals.
To learn more about Erik Kwakkel and his one-of-a-kind research project, check his personal blog.