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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.’
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
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