The diary of a medieval scribe

Astonishingly, there are no surviving memoirs of ancient or medieval scribes. For all the writing these people did over the centuries, one would hope that at least one would turn the quill towards the act of scribal copying itself and offer some insights to those outside the profession. The scribes’ only testament are the written works themselves, covered in sweat, tedium and resignation.

Scribes wrote for others, not for themselves. Naturally, an author was also a scribe insofar as he or she penned the editio princeps, which in the age before the printing press, was the autograph itself, the manuscript written in the hand of the author, the exemplar on which subsequent copies were based. But the professional scribe wasn’t an author. His or her job was to reproduce, not conceive. To duplicate, not design. Before the advent of machine production, scribes were the closest thing to a machine in the grand machinery of book production and reproduction.

But scribes were people, not machines, with their own agency and their own needs and desires. We may not have a medieval scribe’s diary, but we have countless petitions enrolled at the very end of the manuscripts scribes produced, expressions of dissatisfaction, relief, anger and hopelessness, fists raised up against the titanic labour involved in reproducing a piece of written work.

Finally, scribes were not infallible. In fact, the longer one spends copying a text, the more likely one is to make mistakes, and thank God for scribal mistakes. For it is due to errors of transcription that we can work our way back through the history of a copied text and plot the stages of evolution and reproduction like genealogists working out the arborescence of a family tree.

Essentially, print emerged as an antidote to scribal fatigue and fallibility. The movable-type press doesn’t get tired, and it never chooses to leave out or misspell one word or another. But it is also devoid of meaning and as print became dominant, it introduced a world of machine meaninglessness which made the modern world.

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