‘Turning Darkness into Light’: Depictions of the Medieval Scribe

By Irene O’Daly

Last week we were treated to a wonderful lecture on VLF 4 – a large-scale manuscript of Pliny’s Natural History by Mary Garrison.  Garrison debated the origins of the manuscript, drawing attention to the fact that few Anglo-Saxon scriptoria in the eighth century would have had the resources to produce such a manuscript, bearing in mind that each leaf would have taken a full sheep skin to make.  Not only would this have required a considerable financial outlay, but, Garrison speculated, would have probably necessitated the suspension of other copying activities in the centre.  The material demands of the copying of medieval manuscripts were immense, and cannot but capture the imagination.

VLF 4, f. 20v © Special Collections, Leiden University Library

In school in Dublin I learned a version of the Old Irish poem Pangur Bán, translated by Robin Flowers.  This famous translation of a lyric found in a manuscript dating from the ninth century at the monastery of St Paul in Carinthia (in southern Austria) describes a scribe’s cat, Pangur, his companion.  Flower’s version memorably ends with the following lines:

‘Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night,
Turning darkness into light.’

Such poems contribute to our image of the medieval scribe as an isolated figure, engaged in a lonely task.  But, there is also something redemptive in the image of the monk dedicated to his work.  The Dublin poet Micheal O’Siadhail captures this aspect in his poem Early Irish Lyric.

‘Once again picture him near St Gall,
a monk in exile. Cinctured, diligent,
he is glossing, paving a Latin grammar.


Suddenly fired,
high on the elixir of spring, he declares:

“A hedge of trees overlooks me; for me
a blackbird sings – news I won’t conceal…”
Febrile, meticulous, he chronicled the astoundment

a thousand years ago on the lower edge
of a vellum folio.  This is another spring
and we are brothers conjugate in ecstasy.’

Indeed, we cannot forget that the monastic scribe was engaged in an opus Dei, a meditative enterprise, one intended to lead to intellectual and spiritual transcendence.

Seamus Heaney‘s recent (2006) translation of Pangur Bán conveys the self-fulfillment of the scribal task:

‘More than loud acclaim, I love
Books, silence, thought, my alcove.
Happy for me, Pangur Bán
Child-plays round some mouse’s den.

Truth to tell, just being here,
Housed alone, housed together,
Adds up to its own reward:
Concentration, stealthy art.’

The reality of the medieval monastic scriptorium was probably more sociable and businesslike than these images convey. Garrison’s implication that a manuscript the size of VLF 4 must have been the product of considerable planning demonstrates this.  By the late twelfth century, the process of copying books was largely a commercial enterprise, carried out in the streets surrounding the emergent early universities.  But, at the heart of the medieval manuscript remains the moment of recording, of composition, of a single individual’s quill against a page.

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