This Is What Comic Books Looked Like in the Middle Ages

Curators at the British Library have compiled a list of the manuscripts in their collection which they believe are among the best examples of Ye Olde Comick Bookes, rife with superheroes, supervillains, origin stories, drama and, of course, blood and gore.

Among the top candidates:

Saint and Superhero: The Guthlac Roll (12th or 13th Century)

Saints' lives were usually action-packed and gory, lending themselves easily to the comic-strip format. The Guthlac Roll tells the story of the life of St Guthlac using a series of images in roundels with labels… Born into the Mercian royal dynasty, Guthlac spent his early adult life as a warrior, leading apparently successful raids and battles against hostile neighboring tribes…. The roundel scenes are given particular animation by the skill with which the anonymous artist captured facial expressions. Note the bewilderment of Guthlac's men as he bade them and the military life farewell. Stumped by his decision, they turn to one another questioningly; one looks down at the ground, seemingly lost in a moment of doubt. The soldier at the front appears to be appealing to Guthlac – but too late: his back turned, he is departing with a simple wave.


Unauthorized Scripture: The Holkham Bible Picture Book (14th century)

Sometimes described as England's first graphic novel, this book tells stories from the Old and New Testament in a series of pictures with captions in Anglo-Norman French. There is some interesting material that didn't make it into the authorized version of the Bible. [This page below] tells about Joseph's reaction when he hears Mary is having a baby: the banners contain the dialogue, like speech bubbles in modern cartoons. In the second image, Joseph, whose friends have been telling him some home truths about his wife, is touching Mary's stomach and asking her some awkward questions. Mary protests, "No, really don't worry, I have never committed a bodily sin." Of course he doesn't believe her, but fortunately an angel drops in to reveal the divine plan and he has to eat humble pie.

Coming Soon To Movie Theaters: The Queen Mary Psalter (14th Century)

The life of Moses is one of the great stories of all time, providing material for comics and movies such as the Charlton Heston epic and Spielberg's Prince of Egypt. The Queen Mary Psalter contains a remarkable series of Old Testament stories told in a series of 223 pictures with captions in French. Included in the series is the Moses story. [Below], Miniature of Moses freeing the Israelites from the King of Egypt, miniature of Moses and the king of Egypt's troops facing each other across the Red Sea.


Visit the British Library's Medieval manuscripts blog to see more samples of their finest graphic novels.


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