Medieval manuscripts blog

08 March 2017

Female Scribes in Early Manuscripts

Recently, we received a query asking, 'Which is the earliest European manuscript in the British Library’s collections that was created by a female scribe?' The short answer is: we can’t tell! Female scribes worked on many of the same sorts of texts as male scribes and used the same sorts of scripts. Therefore, unless they signed their work or left other clues, there is no way of telling whether a given text was copied by a man or a woman. Luckily, however, there are clues in several relatively early Greek and Latin manuscripts at the British Library, including a letter from the 2nd century BC and an illustrated copy of scientific works from the 12th century. 

Diagram of the four seasons and four cardinal directions,  from a copy of Isidore's De natura rerum: copied by 8 female scribes at Munsterblisen, c. 1130–1174, Harley MS 3099, f. 156r

The easiest way to tell if a manuscript was created by a female scribe or scribes is if they left in the book a note which recorded their names or details about themselves. Admittedly, these sorts of notes should be treated with caution: sometimes, later scribes could copy a note left by the scribe of their exemplar along with the rest of the text. Still, there seem to be plausible examples which record female scribes. For example, a note in one copy of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae and De natura rerum (Harley 3099) claimed it was copied by no less than 8 female scribes from the Benedictine nunnery of Munsterblisen, near Maastricht:

These are the names of those women who wrote [scripserunt] this book: Gerdrut, Sibilia, Vierwic, Walderat, Hadewic, Lugart, Derta, Cunigunt. Indeed, they wrote for those in charge of the monastery [monasteriensibus dominis], that  they might ask God for them to free them from punishment and establish them in Paradise. May whoever steals [this book] from them be cursed! [The date 1134 has been added by a later hand.]

All the signing ladies: note naming female scribes, Harley MS 3099, f. 166r

This is not even the earliest example of a manuscript possibly signed by a woman. Notes in a commentary on the Psalms from around the year 800 attributed it to a group of female scribes from Chelles (now Cologne, Dombibliothek Codex 63, 65 and 67). Some have argued that an invitation to a birthday party found at Vindolanda, on Hadrian’s Wall, is one of the earliest known documents in Latin copied out by a woman, if birthday girl Claudia did indeed write part of the invitation.

Papyrus 43
Letter: Egypt, 2nd century BC, Papyrus 43

In other cases, context or contents are used to deduce whether a scribe might have been female. For example, Papyrus 43, copied in the 2nd century BC, contains a letter possibly from a woman to her husband, and seems to have been penned by the woman herself. It lacks the formal prologue (and some of the calligraphic style) usually associated with professional scribes. In the text of the letter, the woman tells the man how happy she is that he has started to learn 'Egyptian letters', which he can then teach to slaves: 'Discovering that you are learning Egyptian letters, I was delighted for you and for myself.'

Decorated initial from the Book of Nunnaminster: Mercia, late 8th or early 9th century, Harley MS 2965, f. 4v

In other cases, female pronouns used in prayers may indicate a female context for the use or even production of a manuscript. For example, female pronouns appear in a series of prayer books made in the kingdom of Mercia in the late 8th century or early 9th century, leading some scholars to suggest that they were made for, or possibly even by, female scribes. At least one of these books may have had a later female owner: the Book of Nunnaminster includes a note about the land which King Alfred’s wife, Ealhswith, gave to the Nunnaminster in Winchester, suggesting it could have been owned by Ealhswith and/or the nuns of the Nunnaminster. It is tempting to think that women could have written these books, even if there is no way of knowing. 

Similarly, although the main text of this 11th-century prayerbook was made by a man — the monk Ælsinus of the New Minster, Winchester — notes added between the lines use female pronouns. This might suggest that notes were made by or for women.

The sisters are doing it for themselves: addition changing the masculine form 'peccator' to the feminine form 'peccatrix', Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 68r

This is just a sample of some of the earlier manuscripts in the British Library’s collection which have been associated with female scribes. Later periods provide even more examples of female scribes, from the author Christine de Pizan to Elizabeth I. Who are your favourite female scribes? 

The beginning of the sixth book of Isidore's Etymologies with decorated initial, Harley MS 3099, f. 42v

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