Angry scribes

Annoyed or resigned?

For the 4,600 years between the invention of writing and the development of print, scribes were an essential social group responsible for an increasingly larger chunk of cultural reproduction. As writing assumed an increasingly larger profile in many European, Asian and American societies (where writing emerged, seemingly, simultaneously), scribes rose from being quantité negligeable to crucial agents of political and cultural support and growth.

And chances are that they were very angry.

In Europe, we see scribes at work in the works – books and manuscripts – they produced. We don’t see them outside of work, we can’t track their other activities. And when we peek into the work they were doing, we see annoyance and anger. Copying a text by hand, especially when the text usually runs to tens if not hundreds of pages, is a painstaking activity.

Books didn’t have pages until the end of the Middle Ages. Instead, the scribes and bookmakers of medieval Europe divided a book into leaves. So instead of page 1 (starting on the right) and page 2 (same leaf), they saw only one division, folio uno, leaf 1. I think this was a clever way to assuage scribal anger. The taskmaster – head of a scriptorium, abbot, etc – comes over to you and asks you to copy a 100-page manuscript over the next few weeks. Instead of telling you it’s 100 pages, he says, ‘don’t worry, it’s only 50 folios’. For a second, you forget your trade and, think, ah, 50 is not a lot. A bit like the trick with psychological pricing, like £9.99. I think this made scribes very angry.

To judge from the scribes’ confessions themselves, they were very annoyed with their jobs. Medieval manuscripts are running over with ‘dying confessions’, last-word disclosures which are known as ‘colophons’ – one of the best sources of scribal exasperation. Placed at the end of the text which had just been copied, the colophon usually contained a ‘word from the scribe’, usually more than one word and less than a friendly one, to boot.

Scholars have shown that some of the most recurrent colophonic assertions were expressions of relief mixed with irritation. ‘Thank God I finished this, for it almost killed me’ would be a typical one. The author of a text had to contend with the readership. The scribe had to contend with the text – a source of endless exasperation.

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