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Who were these people copying manuscripts? The mysteries of medieval scribes

By Shari Boodts

In today’s Digital Age publishing texts is easier than ever and the dissemination of ideas is no longer the exclusive domain of the publishing industry. Influencers, social media algorithms, clickbait and fake news are redefining the relationship between authorship and authority. Of course, none of this is new. For a solid millennium, medieval manuscripts carried our written heritage from place to place, from reader to reader. Every copyist could manipulate his source without alerting future readers, every copy could sustain or diminish the authority of a text. As with writings thrown on the Internet today, the author was no longer in control of his creation. In this series, we look at the medieval attitude to authorship, and how the manuscript shaped and defined the power of texts.

A few years ago, a nun with blue teeth briefly made headlines. She lived and died around the year 1100 AD in the monastery of Dalheim in Germany. Scientists discovered small flecks of ultramarine pigment from lapis lazuli in her teeth, and concluded that she likely was a painter of illuminated medieval manuscripts. Evidence of women working in book production – let alone with this precious material, which was reserved for luxury manuscripts and used by highly trained scribes – is very scarce, so this was an important find.

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The interest in this story shows that medieval scribes speak to our imagination, in part also because we know relatively little about them. Medieval scribes, the producers of the manuscripts that are for us such crucial and fascinating sources, are mostly shrouded in mystery, especially when we travel back further in time. In a recent book, featured also on medievalists, Mary Wellesley compared a manuscript to a crime scene: “A tissue of miniscule clues to a forgotten history which need to be examined with forensic care.”

And so, we assiduously look for information about the people who created all of these manuscripts. We’ve all heard of scribes leaving notes in the margins, complaining of back pain or cold hands or thinking about their dinner. But those were the exceptions, the ones who left their mark in the manuscripts. Who were they really, medieval scribes? How did they work? And did they realize the importance of the labor they so diligently undertook?

A 12th-century drawing of Cassiodorus – Leiden, University Library, Ms. vul. 46, fol. 2

The pen is mightier than the sword

Why did monks occupy themselves with copying books? Of course, the obvious answer is that monasteries required books – Bibles and liturgical books at least – but that does not seem to cover the reality that medieval monasteries were almost singlehandedly responsible for the preservation and transmission of all written materials that made it to the age of print. The answer can be gleaned from a remark made by Cassiodorus (c. 485–585), a statesman and historian, who founded a monastery at Vivarium. In his Institutiones, a study guide for the monks of Vivarium, he writes about scribes and illuminators:

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A blessed purpose, a praiseworthy zeal, to preach to men with the hand, to set tongues free with one’s fingers and in silence to give mankind salvation and to fight with pen and ink against the unlawful snares of the devil. For Satan receives as many wounds as the scribe writes words of the Lord.

If we combine this remark with Benedict of Nursia (c. 480–550), who made reading every day a part of his widely followed monastic rule, it is clear that very early on already books became an important priority for monasteries. While it used to be thought that all scribes were monks, we now know that in the early and high Middle Ages copyists also included nuns, cathedral clerics and lay craftsmen. Still, the monastic scriptorium was the place where the majority of books were made, at least until the end of the 12th century.

Biblical scenes from a manuscript made at Tours, c. 830 – c. 840, British Library Add MS 10546, f. 5v

The Tours scriptorium in Charlemagne’s age

Though we have plenty of illuminations of individual scribes at work, hardly any images of monastic scribes working in groups appear to survive. Even so, we know that medieval scriptoria could be almost industrial in their scale. The most famous example is the scriptorium of Tours in the Carolingian period. Over the course of the first half of the ninth century, under four successive abbots (Alcuin, Fridugisus, Adalhard and Vivian), the scriptorium at Saint-Martin-de-Tours was the most important center for the production of Bible manuscripts in the Carolingian empire.

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The number of extant Tours Bibles is impressive. For the period between 796 and 850 we count over forty extant Bibles and over twenty gospel books. Based on these numbers it is estimated that the Tours scriptorium produced an average of two pandect (single-volume) bibles and a gospel book every year for the entire first half of the ninth century. In order to sustain such a massive enterprise, the Tours abbey required significant resources (namely sheep for the making of parchment) and personnel. Up to twenty copyists could work on unbound quires simultaneously, sometimes using different exemplars for the same book. There are many more examples of such division of labor, though the scale of the team efforts at Tours is quite exceptional.

Eadwine in Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1 fol.283

Famous medieval scribes

This almost assembly line-style of producing manuscripts stands in contrast to examples of individual scribes who developed personal reputations for their work. There is Eadwine, the ‘prince of scribes’, as he is called in manuscript Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1 (c. 1165), fol. 283v. There is Diemut, a female scribe working in Wessobrun in the 11th century. She did not sign any of ‘her’ manuscripts, but we know of her because her community so valued her contribution that they compiled a list of all manuscripts she had copied.

Another example is Otloh of Regensburg, who offers quite a bit of detail about his training and work as a scribe in the works he authored himself. We learn he was an autodidact and that his skills were in great demand not only in his own house, but also in other monasteries, to which he traveled in order to copy books there. The fact that expert scribes traveled is attested several times. Still, these scribes who escaped anonymity are relatively rare, at least for the Early and High Middle Ages. In most cases the scribe, if he or she was identifiable, remains nameless. Instead, we have given them names ourselves. We know the ‘Master of the Brussels Initials’, a scribe trained in Bologna who painted historiated initials in a famous Book of Hours commissioned by the Duc de Berry.

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Master of the Brussels Initials

Imagining the end of the world

Though anonymity was for a long time the rule, there are exceptions, where scribes chose to step into the light. A fascinating case is that of Beatus of Liébana’s Commentary on the Apocalypse. This work, put together in the second half of the 8th century, knew a surge in popularity in the decades leading up to the year 1000. The oldest datable manuscript of this work is the so-called ‘Morgan Beatus’ (New York, Morgan Library and Museum M 644). This manuscript was copied and illuminated by a scribe by the name of ‘Maius’, who died in 968. Here we have a scribe who is most likely the creator of a particular cycle of images that was imitated in other manuscripts of the same text. But also interesting about this particular case is that of the 8 extant copies of the work made before the year 1000, at least 5 had scribes who identified themselves and/or dated their work. De Hamel, who describes this manuscript in his Meetings with remarkable manuscripts, speculates that this unusually high number of scribes who revealed their name, might have to do with the content of the text – at the time of the last judgment, any good work you have done, is worth claiming. The dating he attributes to the fact that with the year 1000 nearing, millennial calculations and precise dates were on people’s minds.

Folio from the Beatus Morgan – Morgan Library MS 644 f. 115v

From their own observations about their craft all the way to state-of-the-art modern technologies that reveal their artistry, whatever it is that brings medieval scribes back to life for us, we relish every crumb of information on those most mysterious and vital of people, the ones who held knowledge, science, stories, history, art in the palm of their hands and exerted great effort to pass them along.

Shari Boodts, Iris Denis, Riccardo Macchioro and Gleb Schmidt together make up the team behind a European research project on the reception of patristic sermons in medieval manuscripts (PASSIM), housed at the Department of Medieval History at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. You can learn more about their work on the project website.

Further reading:

The example of Maius I gratefully borrowed from Christopher de Hamel, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts. New York, 2017. Otloh and Diemut are featured in Frank T. Coulson and Robert G. Babcock (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Latin Paleography. Oxford, 2020. Other interesting reads on medieval manuscripts and their makers are e.g. Mary Wellesley, Hidden Hands. The Lives of Manuscripts and their Makers. London, 2021 and Erik Kwakkel, Books before Print. Amsterdam 2018.

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