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Copycat: The Life of a Medieval Scribe

By Danièle Cybulskie

If a medieval person wanted a copy of a book or a poem, acquiring one wasn’t usually quite as simple as heading to the local bookstore. Every book prior to the invention of the printing press was hand-copied from an original, which meant that it involved a lengthy process. Here’s a five-minute look at the process by which a book came to be copied.

medieval scribe

Detail of a historiated initial ‘T'(abelliones) of a scribe writing a charter beginning with ‘in dei nimi[n]e / Amen’, with the instruction for an illuminator reading ‘sit hic…’. (British Library)

(Just a quick note before we begin: “book” can mean many things other than two covers and the paper between – think of the gospels as an example. For this reason, historians call the thing with two covers and the pages in between a “codex” – the plural is “codices” – to avoid confusion.)

First, a patron would have to arrange to borrow the codex from someone willing to part with it for the months it would take to copy part of it. Because codices were such expensive commodities, this arrangement would have had to be one of great trust between friends, or great care (and perhaps financial exchange) between strangers. Once the original codex was in hand, a scribe would have to be found to do the copying. Scribes could be hired in cities, but if a patron lived outside of a city, he’d likely have to turn to someone from the clergy to do the copying, as they were the ones who were taught to write. Most monasteries had their own scriptoriums in order to copy sacred works for their own libraries; however, private commissions would not have been unheard of. (It’s worth noting that some of the codices that have survived have copying errors that were likely made because the copyist was illiterate. It seems that patrons took scribes where they could get them!)

scribe at workA scribe’s desk did not look like a modern desk, nor did it look like the kind of flat table we often see in movies and on television. Scribes did their writing on desks that looked more similar to a lectern; the pages were propped up on an angle steeper than forty-five degrees. This looks a little painful to a modern writer, but it was actually very helpful in getting the ink to flow nicely and evenly out of a quill pen. If you look closely at the ink in a medieval manuscript (and, thankfully, there are many websites that have digitized copies), you can often see the places where the ink begins to run out, and the quill is dipped again. If you’ve tried calligraphy or painting, you can imagine how often the scribe must have dipped his pen. Sometimes, you can also see places where the scribe has changed ink. Remember, as you look at manuscripts, that all the ink was handmade from ingredients that had to be gathered and prepared, and every quill was hand cut and sharpened. If a scribe made a mistake, he’d have to scrape it out of the parchment with a very sharp knife (taking care not to ruin the rest of the parchment), so the copying was slow. Pencil lines or rows of tiny holes can sometime be found in manuscripts as guidelines to help ensure that the script was written evenly across the blank page. Illustrations were usually added after the text on a page was complete; imagine what it would have been like to make a mistake on a page that was already illuminated! This was painstaking work, done by sunlight or candlelight, and it took months to complete.

After a scribe had copied a work, it might be set aside until enough different works had been copied to bind together between two covers. This means that medieval codices were personalized, and could contain a range of works from poetry to history to recipes within. As you can imagine, this is one of the best parts of a manuscript: the guessing at the personality behind the patron/patroness who commissioned all of the works in a codex. It’s a little like looking at a modern person’s bookshelf to find clues about them. Binding was (again) done by hand, with covers made of wood and often covered with leather for decoration, or sometimes gold and jewels, depending on the wealth of the patron, and the significance of the text (for example, religious works often show greater care in their creation and decoration).

In a world of paperbacks and ebooks, it’s interesting to think about which works we’d care to have so much that we’d go through the long and arduous process of copying by hand. While this is just a five-minute look at the process, you can see that reading choices were well-considered before the project of a codex was undertaken. Books, then, are a very useful place to start getting to know the people of the past.

You can see some of the great work done by medieval scribes on the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog and the Sexy Codicology website. See also How to Read Medieval Handwriting.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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