Scribes and the survival of a civilization

There is a long history of the book, and there is a short one. The long one is very long. The short one is this: first, books were written by human hands, then the machines took over. I’m interested in the earlier part, in the human bit.

Manuscript production was no less technological than printed or digital publishing. Nevertheless, it is more baffling. Let’s speak medieval again. It is hard for us to really understand what motivated thousands of scribes to copy the output of an entire civilization and ensure its survival by human (i.e. manual) reproduction. By civilization I mean ancient civilization.

We complain today that many ancient texts have been lost because of faults in medieval transmission, neglect, disinterest, ideological bias. If we stick to the statement that medieval scribes merely copied ancient texts, then we can still complain about loss. They could have done better. If on the other hand we realise that a few thousand people at any given time were busy transferring the riches of an entire civilization to an uncertain present and down to an even more uncertain future, then we might exchange complaint for awe and pause for a minute.

And the question is this: why did they do it? There was no intellectual program, no flashmob, no writing competition over who would copy the Aeneid first, no hackathons of scribal velocity or accuracy. There was no national program (with the significant exception of Charlemagne’s vision, but too fleeting to become paradigmatic); no global initiative, no emergency plan. Instead, there was a bunch of guys who took it as their personal responsibility to keep writing, exchanging old parchment for new vellum, and eyesight for sightlessness. For no cause that would go viral today.

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