Examining an Elizabethan doodle

One day while idly looking through our copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) I chanced upon an interesting doodle in the back endpapers. To find inscriptions, notes and drawings in our early printed books is not unusual. And these can offer fascinating insights into the how a book was received and used by its former owners.

The previous owner of this book was Robert Hare, an antiquary who donated a number of incunabula and medieval manuscripts to Trinity Hall. Hare died in 1611, but he mainly donated his books to the College in the 1570s and 80s. It’s unlikely though, that he was behind the drawing at the back of this book. We can tell this, because  it does not match samples of Hare’s handwriting in the front of his books. We can also tell that it was not by any of the books previous owners, because it depicts fashion from a much later period.

Dating the doodle

The figures in the doodle are clad in slashed and embroidered doublets (close fitting jackets), puffed breeches, stockings and garters. They wear ruffs at their necks and have small beards. One carries a rapier – a type of thin, two-edged sword popular throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Their outfits therefore, indicate that the figures are two gentlemen from the late 1580s. The doodle can be most likely dated to this time, particularly as the book would had been moved from its original location in a medieval book chest, to the recently built College library (now the Old library!)

Philosophy is an impenetrable armour

In the drawing are two figures. The figure to the right is standing above a human skull and some long bones. From his mouth he says: “manes sunt fabulae” which is an allusion to the lyrical poet Horace (65-8 BC): ‘You yourself will be soon buried in eternal darkness, among the Manes (ghosts/spirits) so much talked of…’. [Horace’s Odes, 1.4.16]. The word ‘fabulae’ can have both a literal and a metaphorical interpretation. Taken literally it means ‘the ghosts/spirits much talked of’. However, it is a Stoic who speaks the words as an Epicurean. Epicureans reject immortality and believe that the soul is mortal and material, like the body, and so the same phrase can be translated as ‘the fictitious non-existing spirits”. But the former is more likely in this context given the presence of the bones!

Above the man is written ‘A Deo ne miserum est mori’, which can be translated as ‘By God, it is better to die’. This is an allusion to the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC): “usque adeone mori miserum est?”, which can be translated as: ‘Is it then so very wretched a thing to die?’, or more simply: “Is death so hard to bear?” [1]. This refers to the Epicurean view that one need not fear death, because there is no prospect of punishment in the afterlife – the soul simply ceases to be.

The man on the left is engrossed in a book which contains the text: ‘Philosophia armatura impenetradilis’, which means ‘Philosophy is an impenetrable armour’. This is probably an allusion to Seneca (4 BC- 65 AD), a Roman Stoic philosopher who encouraged the reader to be “gird about with Philosophy,” which is essentially saying “put on the armour of philosophy.” Above the figure floats a disembodied head, which could be a spirit. The two figures therefore appear to illustrate the two sides of thought on the existence or non-existence of the afterlife.

A humanist education

The doodle shows that whoever drew it had a good grasp of Latin and knowledge of the Classic authors. This knowledge reflects a period of change at the University of Cambridge which saw a move away from its original purpose to train clerics in canon law, to providing the new humanist education to the sons of the nobility and gentry. The humanist education of rhetoric, logic, and philosophy was conducted through studying the literary works of ancient authors such as Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Seneca. And the ability to quote from this classical wisdom to bolster arguments was a critical part of scholarly and political discourse. Books of quotations like Erasmus’ Adagia, originally printed in 1500, was among the most popular volumes of the 16th century. The Old library does in fact, contain a copy of the Adagia [3] and the doodle might have more naturally been located in this book!

Examining this doodle provides some interesting insights into the time, background and educational context of the doodler. Although we will never be able to identify them, it was most likely a student who was bored and tired in the library!

Jenni Lecky-Thompson, with thanks to Dr William O’Reilly for the Latin translations.


[1] Dryden, John, The Works of Virgil, 1697, Line 646

[2] Seneca, Epistulae Morales, 82.5

[3] Erasmus, Adagia Basel: Johann Froben, 1523.

Further reading

Cunnington, C. Willett, and Phillis Cunnington (1954) Handbook of English Costume in the Sixteenth Century. London: Faber and Faber.

Konstan, David, “Epicurus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 edition), edited by E.N. Zalta. Accessed at: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/epicurus/>

Wilson, Catherine (2015). Epicureanism: A Very Brief Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

“The University of Cambridge: The sixteenth century.” A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge. Ed. J P C Roach. London: Victoria County History, 1959. 166-191. British History Online. Web. 05 July 2020. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol3/pp166-191

“1550–1600 in Western European fashion”. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1550%E2%80%931600_in_Western_European_fashion