Scribblers United: The Unexpected Joys of Doodling

by Andrew Smith (UCL)

As a contemporary historian, I don’t see many illuminated manuscripts. I don’t see many handwritten sources either, if I’m honest. Much of what I end up looking at is in the tidy, typewritten order of the 1940s and beyond.

One of the most unexpected joys, therefore, is discovering the marginalia of the bureaucratic scribbler. The anguished cries of someone annotating committee minutes can amuse, for sure, but far better is the idle imaginings of someone reviewing tedious policy documents and data sets. I can only imagine the chap stuck somewhere in an office reading through these things, desperately waiting for the dinner bell so he can clock off and get out the door.

It’s remarkable how transportive this can be when I myself am sitting reviewing these same data-sets, looking out for statistically significant or interesting anomalies that might herald some discovery or explain some odd market fluctuation. Many of the winegrowers’ protests I described when writing my thesis often seemed arbitrary. Sometimes they stemmed from a national decline in the price of wine, sometimes a local variation in harvest. Sometimes these things kicked off because 5 men met in a café and got to grumbling. Yet somewhere in the unknowable, historical heart of this moment, someone said: let’s get together and torch a tax office. That’s what I’m looking for in these data-sets (and perhaps in future I’ll write a bit more on the myriad reasons that people wanted to hit the streets and protest, or don a balaclava and smash the state).

Yet, in the midst of this search, whilst I scan this data, I sometimes chance upon the man (and it was invariably a man given the period and profession) that read this before me. Of course there are scribbled notes; of course there are elisions and question marks. But what really sings out to me across the decades is when this unknown bureaucrat’s mind really starts to wonder, when he starts doodling.

These little drawings aren’t the work of a secret Leonardo, but they are actually pretty good. It’s also comforting the way that they relate to the topic of the memos they adorn. It doesn’t seem like he’s avoiding work, but rather that an unquiet mind has started to wander…

I’ve picked out two of the best for a brief exhibition (cue Art Attack gallery music).

Both of these come from Archives Départmentale de l’Hérault (ADH 2W/1522, for those keeping score) and are from a dossier produced by the Institut Technique du Vin in 1952. This was an industry body trying to help cooperatives and independent growers to ameliorate their production and deal with technological innovation in agriculture.


(1) Worm eating grape

The first of these doodles appeared in relation to an ongoing campaign to promote new methods to combat parasites and disease in Héraultais vineyards. The memos go into great detail about the different types of disease that can be avoided by spraying the vines, along with the dangers presented by parasites and all sorts of creepy-crawlies. Accordingly, our bureaucratic doodler started drawing the pesky bugs themselves – caught in the act, as it were. The bigger bug looks almost like the Caterpillar from ‘Alice in Wonderland’, though this one is smoking a pipe rather than a hookah. Perhaps our bureaucrat was keen to nip out for a smoke?

The second doodle appears after a discussion of different vineyards that mentioned Pic Saint-Loup, an area surrounding the titular hill north of Montpellier. Today, it is one of the most prominent of the Coteaux de Langudoc appellations, producing excellent wine in a climate that’s a bit cooler than the rest of the Meridional coast. It was a recognised wine area at this point, though only in the process of being recognised as a VDQS (a classification that puts a place on the road to becoming a top appellation), which it was in 1955. The mountain itself isn’t named after a wolf, but rather three brothers who became hermits after returning from the crusades to find their beloved passed away in their absence.

sainted wolf

(2) Sainted Wolf

Nevertheless, as the area was drawing focus from innovators in organisations like the Institut Technique du Vin in 1952, our doodling bureaucrat got another pile of documents. Rather than the love-lorn brothers, however, he decided to reimagine the origins of the name and sketch out the sainted wolf.

Abstract RubbishNow, in the interests of openness, I’ve decided to scan an example of my own doodling. This often happens in conferences and is something I do to occupy my hands whilst I’m listening to papers. (Like the nameless bureaucrat, I’d like to assert that I am paying attention!) Firstly – it’s rubbish, and I don’t have half the penmanship of the bureaucrat. Secondly, it doesn’t seem to actually BE anything. Little to be gained from me, it seems.

(3) Abstract Rubbish

The point of all this? Nothing really, though I suppose it shows a commonality in modes of working over time. It re-emphasises that behind every document is another person, and that by sifting through a mountain of documents you’re re-treading the path of someone else. It also goes to show, I hope, that even when doodling, there’s something going on upstairs.

Has anyone else come across a doodle that spoke across time, uniting generations of scribblers? Something that reminded you, when working with documents, that others rifled through these sheets? All anecdotes gladly received!


2 Responses

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Society for the Study of French History logo