Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

03 June 2014

The Burden of Writing: Scribes in Medieval Manuscripts

When we speak to visitors or students about our medieval manuscripts, we frequently find ourselves spending a significant amount of time talking about how such books were created.  We discuss the ways that scribes worked and artists painted, and quite often we will then be asked just how it is that we can know such details.  There are, of course, medieval manuals for craftspeople that still exist, but often we can find clues in the manuscripts themselves.  Writing was a skill that was hard-won and greatly valued, and many authors and scribes were memorialised by their artisan brethren.  We’ll devote an upcoming post to an examination of these artists themselves, but today will concentrate on images of scribes at work. 

A portrait of St Dunstan writing at a desk.
Full-page miniature of St Dunstan at work, from Smaragdus of St Mihiel’s Expositio in Reglam S Benedicti, England (Canterbury), c. 1170 – c. 1180, Royal MS 10 A XIII, f. 2v

A spectacular leading example is that of St Dunstan, writing his commentary on the Rule of St Benedict.  Dunstan is shown in his bishop’s garb, seated in a spectacular if somewhat uncomfortable-looking chair.  On the stand before him is a manuscript, bound in a chemise fabric.  The opening lines of Dunstan’s text are already written in blue and red ink, and the saint is in the process of adding to them with ink from the pot before him.  In his right hand he holds a sharpened quill, while in the left he is wielding a knife.  This knife was a common tool, used to sharpen quills, scrape away scribal mistakes, and even hold the parchment in place while the author was writing.

A detail from a 14th-century manuscript, showing an illustration of a hermit writing.
Detail of a miniature of a hermit at work on a manuscript, from the Estoire del Saint Graal, France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), c. 1315 – 1325, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 6v

A knife is almost ubiquitous in medieval scribal scenes.  It can be seen employed in the image above, in which a more modest scriptorium is on display.  This miniature, from a copy of the Estoire del Saint Graal that once belonged to Charles V of France, shows a habited hermit in the act of writing at his desk; his quill dipped into the black ink that rests at his side and his knife steadying the page.  This scribe is working on a not-yet bound folio, which has been ruled with lines and is being held in place by a set of red weights.  Interestingly, we can see that rather than writing an original work, he is copying an older text, which rests on a stand above him; he has so far nearly completed the opening word.

A detail from a manuscript of the Roman de la Rose, showing an illustration of one of the text's authors writing at a desk.
Detail of a miniature of Guillaume de Lorris or Jean de Meun at work writing the text, from the Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 – c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 133r

One of our favourites (of course) is the miniature above, which you hopefully are all already familiar with.  In this scene, the author of the Roman de la Rose is seated at an elaborate workbench with his manuscript before him.  Interestingly, it appears to be a finished copy, bound with gilded edges, which is fairly unusual in these sorts of depictions.  Our author is holding a quill in his hand as he turns towards the viewer, and delightfully appears to have another quill tucked up into his cap.  On the shelf below him are other bound books, some scrolls, and a glass of water, while on his desk we can see two pots of ink, one black, and one red – he may be at work rubricating (marking in red lettering) with the latter ink.  Above the desk is what looks like a sheaf of papers hanging from a hook, although exactly what that is has been a subject of some debate – please do let us know your thoughts!

A page from a 12th-century manuscript, showing an illustration of Donatus at work.
Full-page miniature of Donatus writing his grammar, from Sedulius Scotus’ Expositio super primam edicionem Donati grammatici, Germany, 2nd half of the 12th century, Arundel MS 43, f. 80v

Scribes didn’t always labour on their own, however.  A 12th century copy of Donatus’ Grammar is prefaced with a miniature of the scholar himself, hard at work.  He is surrounded by later inscriptions (and was apparently gifted by this inscriber with an odd variety of full-head crown), but he is also possessed of a small-scale assistant.  This tonsured man, labelled ‘Heinre’(?) is holding an ink horn, which he offers to Donatus.

A detail from the Worms Bible, showing a portrait of St Mark writing his Gospel.
Historiated initial ‘I’(nitium) of Mark and his lion writing the Gospel, from the Worms Bible, Germany (Middle Rhineland), 3rd quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 2804, f. 188v

Such scribal helpers weren’t always human.  This is particularly the case with images of the four Evangelists, who are often shown being assisted by their animal (or angelic) counterpart in the tasks of writing their Gospels.  One especially charming example comes from the Worms Bible.  On the folio above, St Mark is writing the opening words of his Gospel attended by his lion, who helpfully holds the Evangelist’s ink-horn in his teeth while simultaneously serving as a bookstand. 

A detail from a 15th-century manuscript, showing a scribe with a group of pupils.
Detail of a miniature of a scribe demonstrating to his pupils, from Jean Corbechon’s translation of Bartholomaeus Angelicus’ De proprietatibus rerum, France (Paris?), 1st quarter of the 15th century, Royal MS 17 E III, f. 209r

A detail from a 14th-century manuscript, showing an illustration of Prudence writing before her pupils.
Detail of a miniature of Prudence writing at her desk, with pupils before her,from Laurent d’Orleans’ La somme le roi, France (Paris) 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 19 C II, f. 48v

Of course, writing well was a skill that took years to develop, and careful training was necessary.  Many manuscripts include images of masters inducting their pupils into the secrets of the craft.  Interestingly, it’s rare to find an example of a student actually practicing writing; instead the pedagogical technique seems to have required them to watch closely (and occasionally express admiration for the scribe’s labours).  That said, we found one such example of apprentices at work, from Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen.  In the scene at the bottom we can see a busy scriptorium; fittingly for this manuscript, the young men are working under the supervision of a woman, Io.

An illustration of a scriptorium, from a manuscript of Christine de Pizan's Book of the Queen.
Detail of a miniature of a scriptorium under the supervision of Io, from Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410 – c. 1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 109r

At the end of a long apprenticeship – and presumably, eventually some actual writing practice – a pupil could hope to one day become a master scribe, a profession that was highly respected.  So much so that the tools of the trade were proudly displayed by those who had earned them, through sometimes literally back-breaking labour.  As the 10th century scribe Florentius of Valeranica wrote: ‘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.’  

A 15th-century portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer.
Detail of a miniature of Geoffrey Chaucer holding a rosary and wearing a pen-case on a string around his neck, from Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, England (London or Westminster), c. 1411 – c. 1420, Harley MS 4866, f. 88r

A 15th-century illustration of a scribe holding a knife, shears, a pen-case, and an ink-pot.
Detail of a miniature of a scribe with a knife, shears, a pen-case, and an ink-pot, from Jean de Vignay and other texts, France (Paris?), 1st or 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Royal MS 19 C XI, f. 27v

And that will be our last line; stay tuned for our next instalment on the subject of artists in medieval manuscripts!  As always, please do let us know about your favourites in the comments below, or on Twitter @BLMedieval.

Sarah J Biggs


I am fairly certain that the scribal assistant in the German manuscript has the name 'Heinze' - usual diminutive form for Heinrich / Henry.

GREAT! Good solid stuff...looking forward to illuminator news item. WHO ON EARTH DID LUTTRELL?? Or is it unique? surely that style, or that illuminator's work, exists somewhere else?
Also some illumination LOL on why the grotesques, or are they just an extension of the weirdness from time of Kells?

Further info for the friends of scribes: The hermit in Royal 14 E III is not just copying “an older text,” he’s copying a book that Christ himself had written and personally delivered to the hermit. Christ provided the parchment and writing gear, and told the hermit to hurry up because he (Christ) was going to take his book back to heaven with him on Ascension Day. In the story, the book Christ wrote is the Estoire del Saint Graal (the text of which follows directly on this introduction), but the words the hermit is copying—“Quoniam hic est cristus” (That this is the Christ)—come from the Acts of the Apostles.

Is it accepted fact that they're holding knives? I've been curious about this since I began studying calligraphy some years ago. Yes, you would use a knife a lot, particularly in sharpening quills - but you would never sharpen your quill over a page of wet ink. Quills are a lot like fingernails, and the bits tend to fly off in much the same way as fingernail clippings - they would stick to and smear wet ink.
You do also use a knife to scrape off errors - but you don't do this until the ink has completely dried. If you think about the results of trying to scratch a puddle of ink, this becomes obvious. You certainly wouldn't hold your knife in your hand as you worked for either cutting quills or for fixing errors.

But you might hold a brush. When working with any pigment that needs regular stirring or that's maybe not the ideal consistency, you hold a brush in your left hand and the pen in your right. Having a loaded brush at the ready makes the process of reloading ink much smoother, and loading a nib with a brush is much more reliable and will give you sharper lines and clearer letters than dipping your nib, especially if you are using a broad-edged pen - which most medieval scripts did.

I'm not a historian, of any sort, and I have only my own studies and the words of my calligraphy teachers to base this thought off. Does anyone have any input?

The knife is used to hold the parchment/vellum down to the work surface while you are working. This prevents the movement and buckling of the animal skin, while also preventing the transfer of skin oils to the skin, which can prevent the ink from biting into the page. Also loading with a brush when working with iron gall ink is not required as it is an oxygen reactive ink and doesn't tend to be thick with pigments when made correctly. (you actually want the pigment particles to settle to the bottom)

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