‘I am the rod to their lightning.’

In the December 2012 issue of Poetry Magazine, Mary Karr takes a crack at writing a poem in the voice of Our Lady.

Korrektiv: Medieval Edition

The Means of Communication issue of Lapham’s Quarterly contains a fabulous collection of complains and marginal notes by the monks assigned to copy manuscripts in the era before the printing press. With their bitchy complaints—“I am very cold,” “Oh, my hand”—they insert themselves into the holy texts and often, in the process, disrupt the sanctity of the words they’re supposedly copying: “Now I’ve written the whole thing: for Christ’s sake give me a drink.”


Marginalia might include comments like the ones from our miserable monks, but also an entire free-flowing range of artistic flourishes and doodles that make up the edges of medieval manuscripts. “Once the manuscript page becomes a matrix of visual signs and is no longer one of flowing linear speech,” Camille writes, “the stage is set not only for supplementation and annotation but also for disagreement and juxtaposition—what the scholastics called disputatio.”


That these psalters and books of hours often contained sacrilegious sentiments right alongside their holy piety, it seems, was perhaps the point: “We should not see medieval culture exclusively in terms of binary oppositions—sacred/profane, for example, or spiritual/worldly,” Camille explains. “Travesty, profanation, and sacrilege are essential to the continuity of the sacred in society.”


A 1323 missal illuminated by Petrus de Raimbeaucourt […] contains [a] picture of a scribe harassed by monkeys: while he tries to copy, they mimic him, drink his ink, and distract him. One moons him, an obscene gesture suggested by a suggestive line break in the Latin above: the word culpa, “sin,” is cut at cul, so that the line reads instead Liber est a cul—“the book is to the ass.”