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Scribes And Their Ways

( Originally Published 1893 )



IN Greece and Rome, scribes ( grammateis ; calligraphoi ; librarii, scribee) formed a distinct and important profession. We have, however, very little direct evidence which would enable us to characterize in any special way their modes of work. We know that in Rome the work was done both quickly and cheaply ; the poet Martial, for instance, reminds a friend (Epigr. i. 117) that for five denarii (about 3s. 6d.) he could buy the whole of his first book of Epigrams. It would seem natural that when many copies of such a work as Martial's Epigrams or Virgil's Æneid were needed, dictation should be resorted to, and we can picture a room with twenty or more scribes writing from the dictation of some clear-voiced reader ; but the evidence of dictation is so scanty, that we are driven to conclude that scribes almost invariably copied from a volume in front of them in silence, as was certainly the case in the scriptoria of monasteries. Alcuin, who describes the copying work at York, seems to know nothing of it, and the word dictare, used in connexion with writing, means `to compose, not dictate.' The only dictation which was common was when a letter or message was dictated by its composer to swift-penned notarii.

But when we reach the age of monasticism, we find full details of the interior and working of the writing-room or scriptorium of a normal religious establishment. Though it is true that the great Benedictine Order, and its daughter the Cistercian, distinctly encouraged the study of literature, even other than theological, and that, as a fact, more than half the literary work of Europe was done within the walls of religious houses, yet it will be found on examination that the important centres of writing and illumination were not numerous, such as, in England, Canterbury, Winchester, St. Alban's, Durham, and Glastonbury ; while, if we regard the smaller houses, since literature and study were after all only a secondary feature in the theory of monastic life, only a small proportion of monks were allowed to take up the work, and often, we may be sure, by accident or design, the copying would fall into second-rate hands, and, not being in especial repute, be neglected or ill done. Few even of the largest abbeys rose to such full appreciation of the claims of literature, whether reading, composing, or copying, as to have a historiographus, or official recorder of the general only states that Frowinus was the scribe, and that he had copied a treatise of St. Augustine; and local history of the time (such as was Matthew Paris from 1236 to 1259, at St. Alban's), who would give lustre and importance to the whole writing department of the house.

Yet at certain times and places the scribe was held in quite conspicuous honour. In Ireland, for instance, in the seventh and eighth centuries, the penalty for shedding his blood was as great as that for killing a bishop or abbot ; and in Scotland, ` scriba ' was regarded as an honourable addition to a bishop's name. Adamnan's Life of St. Columba is full of allusions to the art of writing, in which the Saint himself excelled ; and it is owing to its prominence that such stories are permanently recorded, as of the men who dropped a MS. into a vessel of water, and upset the Saint's own inkhorn. And the vivid picture given us by Sir T. D. Hardy in the Preface to the third volume of the Materials relating to the History of Great Britain, of the establishment at St. Alban's, shows a favourable aspect of the life of copyists in the largest houses.

The scriptorium of an ordinary Benedictine monastery was a large room, usually over the chapter-house. When no special room was devoted to the purpose, separate little studies were often made in the cloisters, each scribe having a window to himself, as may still be seen in the exquisite cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral (once St. Peter's Abbey) ; but these carrels were fully open on one side to the cloister walk, and it was quite exceptional for a copyist to be allowed a cell or room in any way private. The whole room, or set of studies, was under the general discipline of the monastery, but had special superadded rules of its own. These rules, as preserved to us in certain Benedictine statutes, are as stringent as can well be imagined. Artificial light was entirely forbidden for fear of injuring the manuscripts ; and to prevent idleness and interruption, no one was allowed to enter the room besides the scribes, except certain of the higher officers of the abbey. The Armarius was the special officer who had charge of the scriptorium ; but even he had no power to give out work to be done without the abbot's leave. He had to provide all that was necessary for the work —desks, ink, parchment, pens, pen-knives, pumice-stone for smoothing the surface of the parchment, awls to give guiding marks for ruling lines, reading frames to hold the books to be copied, rulers and weights to keep down the pages. The scribe himself was for-bidden to make any alteration in the text, even when the original which he was copying was obviously wrong. Absolute silence was enjoined ; and as, nevertheless, some method of communication was necessary, there was a great variety of signs in use. If a scribe needed a book, he extended his hands and made a movement as of turning over leaves. If it was a missal that was wanted, he superadded the sign of a cross ; if a psalter, he placed his hands on his head in the shape of a crown (a reference to King David) ; i f a lectionary, he pretended to wipe away the grease (which might easily have fallen upon it from a candle) ; if a small work was needed, not a Bible or service book, but some inferior tractate, he placed one hand on his stomach and the other before his mouth. Finally, if a pagan work was required, he first gave the general sign, and then scratched his ear in the manner of a dog !

Besides the monks who acted as scribes and illuminators, there were three classes of secular scribes, who would only come to the monastery when their services were needed —illuminatores, when the abbey could not itself provide men capable of finishing off the manuscript by rubrication and painting ; librarii, a common kind of hack scribe ; and notarii, who would be required for legal purposes, such as drawing up a deed or will.

It is not to be wondered at that the customs of a particular monastery, or group of monasteries, should result in a particular localized style of writing. The study of these local peculiarities has not yet been carried far, but will no doubt be a fruitful source of information in the future. For example, it was at one time the custom to ascribe to the hand of Matthew Paris all volumes written in a peculiar thirteenth century style, with the long stems of certain letters broken-backed or bent, and distinguished by peculiar orthography, such as imfra for infra. It was discovered by Sir T. Duffus Hardy that this writing was from the school of writing prevalent at St. Alban's at that time, and not in-variably the autograph of the historiographer himself. Many forms of letters were absolutely peculiar to a place, such as the M of St. Mary's Abbey at York and the Q of the Austin Canons of Carlisle.

Let us now consider how a scribe would act at the beginning of his six-hour 1 daily task. A section of plain parchment is brought to him to be written on, each sheet still separate from the others, though loosely put in the order and form in which it will be subsequently bound. First, when the style and general size of the intended writing have been fixed, which would be a matter of custom, the largest style being reserved for psalters and other books to be used for public services on a desk or lectern, the sheets have to be ruled. Down each side of the page, holes were pricked at proper intervals with an awl, or metal wheel bearing spikes on its circumference, and a hard, dry, metal stilus was used to draw the lines from hole to hole, with others perpendicular to mark off the margins ; space was also left for illuminations if it could be estimated before-hand. The stilus made a furrow on one side of the parchment and raised a ridge on the other side, and was carried right across a whole sheet of parchment. This ruling was not such a simple matter as it might seem, and deserves further detail, because the regularity of the system by which it was done enables us to settle some curious points where a manuscript is imperfect. First, it must be noted that the two sides of a piece of parchment are seldom alike ; one is usually smoother and whiter (the original flesh-side), and the other rougher and yellowish (the hair-side). Now a quaternion (see p. 15) was almost always so arranged that wherever the book was opened, the two pages presented to the eye were both hair-side or both flesh-side. Sir E. Maunde Thompson lays down as a general rule that in Greek MSS. the first page of a section generally exhibited a flesh-side, and in Latin MSS. a hair-side. Secondly, although the point has not been fully investigated, at any rate in Greek MSS. of the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries, the first page of a quaternion usually exhibited a set of ridges, and consequently the second page a set of furrows, when ruled. Putting what has been said together (it can readily be understood from a paper model), the normal arrangement of a Greek quater-noun would be— and for Latin ;

Page. Side. Ruling. Page. Side. Ruling.

1 flesh ridges hair ridges

2-3 hair furrows 2-3 flesh furrows

4-5 flesh ridges 4-5 hair ridges

6-7 hair furrows,6-7 flesh furrows etc., until flesh ridges etc., until hair ridges.

Now, observe the use of these dull facts by an example. The celebrated Greek ` Codex Venetus ' of the Iliad of Homer has at the beginning five leaves of introductory matter of a peculiarly interesting kind, being a unique account of Homer, and an abstract (not complete) of the poems composing the Epic Cycle. It is clear from the rest of the volume, which is made up of regular quaternions, that these five leaves are the relics of an original eight forming a quaternion. The question which has agitated scholars is the exact order in which these five leaves should be arranged. In 1881 the MS. was investigated to see if the principles of the normal arrangement of leaves with respect to hair and flesh sides, and with respect to furrows and ridges, would make impossible any of the five theories of arrangement. It was found that three of the five could be put ` out of court ' at once by these considerations, leaving the important question reduced to the comparative claims of two only —a result well worth the investigation. Doubtless some puzzling questions of perturbed order in other manuscripts will in time yield to the application of similar principles.

The scribe has now his ruled leaves before him, his pen and ink in readiness, and the volume to be copied on a desk beside him : he may begin to transcribe. How simple this seems ! He is forbidden to correct, but must simply copy down letter for letter what is before him ; no responsibility, except for power of reading and for accuracy, is laid on him.

Yet all who know human nature, or who have studied paleography, will acknowledge that the probability against two consecutive leaves being really correctly transcribed is about a hundred to one. The causes of ` transcriptional error ' will be treated in Chap. VI. ; so that here it need only be said that the wonder is not that there is so much cause for critical treatment of the text of an ancient author, but that there is so little. When the copyist had finished a quaternion, the writing was often compared with the original by another person ( diorthôtés ;in Latin, corrector). Next, the sheets of a completed work were given over to the rubricator, who inserted in red or other colour titles, sometimes concluding notes (called colophons), liturgical directions, lists of chapters, headlines, and the like ; and finally, if need were, to the illuminator. Nothing then remained, but that the binder's art should sew together the sections, and put them in their covering ; a few words on which may here, for completeness' sake, be added, although the subject is fully treated in another volume in this series.

The common binding in the Middle Ages for books of some size and interest was leather, plain or ornamented, white or brown, fastened over solid wooden boards, with raised bands, four or five or more in number, across the back. The sewing of the sheets and passing of the thread over these bands usually results in a firmness and permanence which no ordinary modern book possesses : not Scribes and their Ways infrequently the solid oak sides may have given way under violent treatment from too great rigidity, while the sewing remains perfectly sound. In general, however, the oak sides are as permanent as the back, and the solid pegging, by which the parchment strings issuing from the thread-sewn back are wedged into the small square holes and grooves cut in the inner oak sides, is a sight worth seeing for workmanship and indestructibility. But for appearance' sake in early mediæval times the finest books received an ivory, silver, or even gold binding, and the sides were carved or worked into embossed figures and set with jewels ; and some-times even wooden sides were highly ornamented. Thus the Latin Gospel of St. John, taken from the tomb of St. Cuthbert, and now at Stonyhurst, is described as bound (in the tenth or eleventh century) in boards of thin wood covered with red leather, the obverse cover containing in the centre a raised ornament of Celtic design, and above and below small panels, with interlaced work graven on them and coloured. Of the finer kind, a Latin Psalter in the British Museum, written for Melissenda, Countess of Anjou, in the twelfth century, is an example, in which the sides are of carved ivory and set with turquoises. Perhaps the finest collection of these jewelled bindings in England is in the John Rylands Library at Manchester. In Ireland—but rarely elsewhere—we find a theca or ` cumdach,' a case in which a volume was kept ; and on this, instead of the volume itself, the richest work was lavished. A few still remain, as those of the Stowe Missal and of St. Columba's Psalter, both of the eleventh century ; but the rapacity of rough times has left few of the grander bindings intact. It is pleasant to read that in the twelfth century England was before all foreign nations in binding,—London, Winchester, and Durham having distinctive styles, known from the designs stamped or traced on the leather sides, which in all cases consist in the main of a parallelogram formed by small dies, filled up by circles and portions of circles in great variety. But the history of binding belongs to the subject of printed books rather than to that of manuscripts, for the great majority of bindings now valued are subsequent to the invention of printing.

The cost of writing, illumination, and binding is an interesting subject, and though ample material for settling the question exists, not much has as yet been brought together.

In classical times, as we have seen (p. 40), a copy of the 1st book of Martial's Epigrams (about 85o Latin lines of verse) cost only about 3S. 6d. in Rome : and probably the competition of skilled scribes kept the price down to a level comparable with printed books at the present day. In the monasteries of the Middle Ages we naturally find no mention of cost of writing, as the monk's work was part of his ordinary duty, but the cost of materials and the time taken are not infrequently recorded. In the case of professional scribes employed at monasteries, there is, of course, mention of remuneration, as at Ely in 1372, where one received 43S. 4d. with a tunic as for a year's work ; and the pay of a common scribe in 1300 was id. a day, equal to about 7 1/2d. of our money, while five dozen skins of parchment cost only 2S. 6d.

In 1453, John Reynbold agreed at Oxford to write out the last three books of Duns Scotus's Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, in quarto, for 2s. 2d. each book. A transcript in folio by this Reynbold of part of this work on the Sentences is in both Merton and Balliol College Libraries at Oxford, one dated 1451.

In 1467 the Paston Letters show that a writer and illuminator at Bury St. Edmund's received for producing a Psalter or other liturgical book, adding musical notes, illuminating, and binding, loos. 2d.

In 1469, William Ebesham wrote out, among other books, certain legal documents for 2d. a leaf, probably in quarto, and Hoccleve's De Regimine Principum for 3S. 9d., ` aftir a peny a leef, which is right wele worth.'

It will not be out of place, in conclusion, to give a few selected specimens of colophons or concluding notes, in which the scribe's most inward mind at the moment of the completion of his long task is often revealed, whether the uppermost feeling be weariness, malignity, religious feeling, expectancy, or humour. An asterisk indicates one defective in grammar or metre. The examples are arranged roughly in order of the five feelings enumerated above.

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