How to teach an old scribe new tricks

Writing is a conservative activity. Innovations in script emerge very slowly over long periods of time. Most people’s handwriting, like their signatures, doesn’t change much in the course of their lives. We write now more or less as we always have.

Yet, the history of writing is far from being immoble. In the medieval West, scripts emerged in different regions and changed hands like coinage. We see in manuscripts texts written in several hands, which improve or decline with each page. Scribes had their own writing styles, but even these style slowly evolved. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether a text is written by the same person who wrote another, or another scribe altogether.

It’s hard to get close to a medieval scribe. The closest we can get is to their hands, and scholars have been looking very closely at the art of medieval writing, the techniques employed by the masters of the written word in handing down the wisdom of the past and the expression of the present.

It’s fascinating how new writing techniques, styles and approaches appear as if from nowhere. We find new page layouts as if they’ve always been there, new letter forms and new devices, like page numbers, tables of contents, underlining, bordering, and other visuals, and we can’t help wondering, how did the scribe come up with that idea? Writing is learned, and once learned, it is reproduced, almost mechanically, over hundreds of pages.

We may think that scribes were too busy copying words to worry about new tricks. But the truth is that they always had new tricks up their sleeves, new ideas made flesh, which advanced the field of writing and produced better books. The scribal hand wasn’t a servile technology, mindlessly duplicating original forms. It was a transformative apparatus, a world of possibility, bringing energy and diversity to the written page.

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