We shall never recover the psychology and the experience of pre-modern writing. What was going through a scribe’s head as he or she was copying other texts? Or how did an author collect his or her thoughts to write them down on tablets, papyrus or parchment? Did writing ever become a casual activity for the most skilled scribes or was it always seen a little bit otherworldly?
That report was lost, the window for experiment was never open, we are left in nearly complete darkness. Nearly.
Colophons are to medieval books what signatures are to modern documents. They convey information about the author or about the circumstances in which the text was written. They range from a few words to a paragraph added at the end of a text. ‘Brother John wrote this, while his hands were freezing’. ‘I nearly lost my sight while copying this book’. ‘This book was written by me in Verona in the year of our Lord etc etc’.
Colophons are to scribes what archaeology is to the materiality of cultures and civilizations. They recover lost voices, lost moments in the continuum of time. They are glimpses, peepholes into untold lives, unseen faces.
One of the most common Greek colophons compares a foreigner’s feeling on his return to his home with the completion of a manuscript. If writing is an adventure, finishing a scribal job is an act of homecoming. An adventure is an act of knowledge, and an act of knowledge is self-knowledge, which is bringing one home to oneself.
The last word, the sign-off, the end of a journey, the beginning of another.