The Humour of Medieval Scribes

“Oh, my hand!” This is just one of the little notes that medieval scribes left in the margins of their manuscripts. Thanks to new research, we are now finding many more examples of scribes’ sense of humour, as they wrote jokes, complaints and even complete nonsense.

In monasteries throughout medieval Europe, monks took up the task of writing by hand entire books. As scribes they would copy texts, making sure their information could be shared and passed down. They would sometimes also include extra bits in the margins or at the end of their works.


Thanks to the work by Lucie Doležalová, we have found dozens of these scribal additions. She has been researching them, trying to figure out why monks left them. “We may hope they provide an actual insight into the process of copying and into the minds and personalities of the scribes,” Doležalová explained in an interview. “In general, when we study the Middle Ages, it is quite difficult to find the personal touch…so these interventions that the scribes add to the copied text seem to promise the provide some real touch with the actual human being behind the manuscript copy.”

Here are some of the interesting and humourous lines left by medieval scribes that Doležalová and other historians have found:


“Here the text ends written by hands and not by feet.”

“The scribe should get a beautiful girl as a reward.”

“This whole ends here, pour, give me a drink.”

“This page was not copied slowly.”

“This lamp gives bad light.”

“The book ends, I do not know in whose hand, I do not know in which year, I do not know where it was written and I do not know when it was finished.”

“If someone else would like such a handsome book, come and look me up in Paris, across from the Notre Dame cathedral.”

“Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night.”

“And this is the end, I drank away the reward for the work.”

“While I wrote I froze, and what I could not write by the beams of the sun I finished by candlelight.”

“Thank God, it will soon be dark.”

“New parchment, bad ink; I say nothing more.”

“When I drink beer, my knee stands askew.”

“The book ends here, the scribe should be free from crime” – in Latin there is a homonym, as the word of both book and free is liber.


“The goose let out the winds through oats, the duck let out the winds through millet.”

“Everything is lacking here, truth, correction, ink, quill, or good paper.”

“He who does not know how to write does not think that it is a labour. Three fingers write, the whole body labours. Whoever has read this book, pray for me.” – this was found by Thijs Porck in an eighth-century manuscript. You can see it below:

Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 9561 fol. 81v.

“Pour is a good word, drink better, drink up the best.”

“This parchment is certainly hairy.”

“Peter, give me a coin, and a stocking. I do not want to write more.”


“Here ends the second part of the title work of Brother Thomas Aquinas of the Dominican Order; very long, very verbose; and very tedious for the scribe; thank God, thank God, and again thank God.”

“Do not reproach me concerning the letters, the ink is bad and the parchment scanty and the day is dark.”

“This is sad! O little book! A day will come in truth when someone over your page will say, ‘The hand that wrote it is no more.’”

“A curse on thee, O pen!”

Here is one by Henry of Damme, who wrote a chronicle of Brussels and complained about his poor compensation. First, he wrote in Dutch: “11 golden letters, 8 shilling each; 700 (initial) letters with double shafts, 7 shilling for each hundred; and 35 quires of text, each 16 leaves, at 3 shilling each.”


Then, he added in Latin: Pro tali precio nunquam plus scriber volo: “For such an amount I won’t write again!”

Many of the comments are complaints – either having poor materials, not getting paid enough, or having to work long hours – while others deal with the reward of having a good drink at the end. Doležalová has also found another category of these scribal additions: nonsense. For example:

“Well, good bye still, cover it odd number of fox, even number a singing bird.”

There are others where fake words are included:

“Drkule and a tail a the end.”

Several of them include bits about drinking and eating (sausages):

“I wrote this sitting like a vulture and you, priest John, buy me beer for a coin. Here he comes, the bold-headed man burps, order, apple, blood sausage is flying. Nowhere until it gets enough foam.”

“The whole ends, pour and give me drink. Hallelujah.
Pour us old beer etc. old hag.
Sifter of beer, skewer of poppy seed.”

“When the book is finished, the scribe will jump with a light foot,
Whoever steals you should be killed with the sword of the anathema.
Here he comes, the bold-headed man burps, let the apple be, the blood sausage is flying. Do you wish to understand what I did?”

Doležalová believes these nonsense ones could have made sense to the original writer – perhaps an inside joke within the monastery or a kind of riddle to tease future readers. Perhaps they were just meant to be nonsense after all.

Doležalová, a historian at Charles University in Prague, is continuing her work on these scribal additions and hopes to develop a database that covers all of Europe. She has been mainly working on manuscripts from Germany and Eastern Europe and has already made some interesting findings: for example, these jokes and complaints may not be as spontaneous as first believed. Some of the remarks left by scribes are repeated by others, in one case as many as twenty times.

You can read more about Doležalová’s research in her article, “Medieval Nonsense Humour in Scribal Additions,” which is published in Medieval Humour: Expressions, Receptions and Functions, edited by Kleio Pethainou. Click here to visit the publisher’s website or buy it on

To end this look at the interesting notes left by medieval scribes, here is a longer one, written in the tenth century by Florentius of Valeranica. Here, the scribe made this plea to his readers:

The labour of the scribe is the refreshment of the reader: the former weakens the body, the latter profits the mind. Whoever you may be, therefore, who profit by this work, do not forget the labouring one who made it, so that God, thus invoked, will overlook your sins. Amen. Because one who does not know how to write thinks it no labour. I will describe it for you, if you want to know how great is the burden of writing: it mists the eyes, it curves the back, it breaks the belly and the ribs, it fills the kidneys with pain, and the body with all kinds of suffering. Therefore, turn the pages slowly, reader, and keep your fingers well away from the pages, for just as a hailstorm ruins the fecundity of the soil, so the sloppy reader destroys both the book and the writing. For as the last port is sweet to the sailor, so the last line to the scribe, Explicit, thanks be to God.

The images used in this article are from Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 12584