Building roads

Isidore of Seville (7th century AD) dividing his work ‘Etymologies‘ into books, France, Amiens, Bibliothèques d’Amiens Métropole, Ms. 108 f. 246v

Most scribes and copyists working in the medieval period had no idea how critical their work was. They accepted the ordeal of writing millions of words by hand, day in and day out, but they don’t seem to have had the awareness of what they were accomplishing beyond the task at hand.

In the flickering light of the scribal workshop or scriptorium, the battle for the past, present and future of the West was being waged. The literary, philosophical, historical and scientific legacy of the ancient world was hanging by a thread. As far as we know, nobody told the scribes that their work was keeping the West alive, the lifeline of the written word. That the letters they filled animal skins with were bridging worlds, laying tracks in the dust of uncharted territory. Not so much clearing than connecting.

To make a book was to build a road across space and time, to claim the past not so much as one’s own than as a rescue mission in need of deployment, to ensure the safety of the cultural capital flowing up and down the byway.

But no, the mission was successful without the stakeholders becoming aware of its success. It proved a triumph in the long haul, though few, if any, involved in it had any idea what they were doing. With humility, they would’ve answered that they were simply copying books. Why, because they could. And once they started, they couldn’t, and shouldn’t, stop. To the benefit of a continent. Unbeknownst to their leaders or to themselves.

One thought on “Building roads

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  1. Such simple devotion to an arduous task without a real consciousness of import, perhaps. One wonders if any tasks we undertake now will have a similar level of significance. Of course, we are now more often bent on legacy-building that perhaps the same simplicity is no longer possible.


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