The economics of scribes

Scribes were professional copyists whose jobs were stolen by the printing press. Scribes are as old as writing itself. Their worth, prestige and use declined as writing and literacy became more widespread. Technical scarcity, low literacy and the early association of writing with magic and the supernatural made scribes custodians of a special kind of art.

Nevertheless, scribes never became rulers, elites or leaders in any sense of the word. There were no utopian empires, kingdoms or republics with scribe-rulers at their helm. Plato imagined a Republic of philosophers, the Jewish tradition made obedience and stewardship the key traits of the tenant-rulers in the Garden of Eden; the Chinese Datong was ruled by a responsible, ethical public while Thomas More’s Utopia was governed by a prince steeped in the values of humanism.

Despite three millennia of professional scribal activity, scribes had little impact on economies. Ancient cultures had state scribes, but these were hired to do government work, not to copy the story of Gilgamesh, the Iliad or the Aeneid.

After the dissolution of the Roman Empire in the West, the task of passing on the written culture to future generations fell on monastic scribes who had the time, resources and security to copy and transcribe. These were not like the slaves of ancient societies, but their impact on the emergent free economy was slight. It was only towards the end of the Middle Ages, and a couple of centuries before the development of print, that scribes acquire some economic autonomy. The rise of universities and of the book trade made scribes an economic asset. But only for a little while.

Scribes are professional copyists, but the profession of copyist-scribes is a late medieval phenomenon. The sudden demand for books required by universities from the 13th century on created a system of smart copying called pecia (from the word for ‘piece’) whereby several hired scribes divided the work of copying an entire book between themselves, each duplicating a section of a book, rather than giving the entire work to a scribe at a time. It was a system of divided labour where scribes were paid for the work completed.

The pecia system was the exhaustion of the economics of book production before print. It was the point of maximum scribal performance before the first stage of automatisation in the history of the book.

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