Voices on the Medieval Page (2): The Scribe

By Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel)

This is the second part of a series highlighting instances where medieval individuals added information to an existing book after its production. What precisely did scribes, readers, booksellers and librarians scribble down? And what do these voices tell us about their relationship to the manuscript? Part 1 discussed the reader; this second part focuses on the scribe.

If a book is an object that you own to read, then the most important production stage is the actual copying of the text. (In some cases, of course, a book was made to impress, in which case the illuminator arguably had a more important role to play.) Apart from copying the text itself, whether a light-treading romance or a lead-footed work by Aristotle, scribes would write down a variety of other things on the page, both on sheets they had prepared themselves and in books copied by other scribes. The best known of these are corrections, both in the margin and interlinear. Scribes would add omitted lines, for example, or provide an alternative reading to clarify the text’s meaning. However, such corrections can be regarded part of the actual production process rather than post-production events.

There are, however, a variety of scribal actions that have very little to do with the actual copying or correcting of the manuscript’s main text. The most common of these is the colophon, a brief message that sometimes appears at the bottom of the text, written down after the scribe had completed his work. Colophons generally state something about the scribe himself, about the book he made, or about the production process of the object. The notations can be quite entertaining, as this earlier blog shows. Says one scribe: “This work is written, master give me a drink. Let the right hand of the scribe be free from the oppressiveness of pain!” A recent article collected an amusing series of such casual colophons: some involve the materials involved (“This parchment is hairy,” “The ink is thin”), others the process of making books (“This page has not been written very slowly”) or the state of the scribe himself (“I am very cold,” “Oh, my hand”).


Scribal colophon “Give me a drink!” in Leiden VLF 5 (Pic Giulio Menna)

More important than producing a smile on the book historian’s face, colophons provide crucial information that place the manuscript in time or space (“I wrote this book in location X in the year Y”), or in a given monastic house or city. The colophon in Brussels, Bibliothèque royale, MS 9332-46, for example, tells us that the book was written by John of Stavelot, a Benedictine in the abbey of St Laurent in Liège born in 1388 (as he mentions in his colophon). “I wrote several other books for the library,” John states, “and decorated them myself.” These few lines thus provide a detailed peek into the monastic scriptorium, where single scribes apparently produced a whole series of books, which they decorated as well. Colophons may also demonstrate under what circumstances a book was made. At the end of Huntington Library MS 1336 the scribe identifies himself as Symon Wysbech, student of Canon Law in Cambridge. He states that he copied the medical recipes in MS 1336 for Robert Taylor of Boxford, Suffolk, who likely practiced medicine. The colophon signals the book was for profit: it was likely copied by a moonlighting student after-hours.

Colophon of Simon Wysbech, student (Huntington Library 1336)

Page with colophon of Symon Wysbech, student (Huntington Library 1336)

Another category of scribal activities that have little to do with the actual copying process are revisions – of a book copied by someone else, that is. In Brussels, Bibliothèque royale, MS 2849-51 a scribe in Herne Charterhouse set out to improve the particularly poor Middle Dutch translation of the Letters of St Paul on the manuscript’s pages. He did so with a fellow monk. The two had a nifty system going, where one would check the Dutch against the Vulgate and write Latin quotations in the margins next to potentially poorly translated sentences. The second scribe would then translate these marginal lines into Dutch, after which the first would replace the faulty text in the column with the marginal translation, scraping the incorrect text off the parchment with his knife. Sometimes the translator-scribe found a flaw that his partner had missed. In that case he wrote a new translation in the margins, unprompted by a Latin quote, together with the marginal phrase “This is how I would put this in Dutch” (Dus soudic dat dietschen). If the scout who compared the Latin with the Dutch wrongly identified a flaw, the other scribe would not offer a translation but the words “This is alright” (Dits well) – a little slap on the wrist. This example shows the scribe in the role of corrector, producing a revision of a text translated and copied by someone else.

Brussels, BR, 2849-51: translation in lower margin concluded by "This is how I would put it in Dutch".

Brussels 2849-51, fol. 48v: translation in margin concluded by “This is how I would put it in Dutch” (in lighter ink)

Scribes would also jot down “signposts” in manuscripts made by others. Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 13.708 contains a the second part of Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum historiale, which is effectively a long series of saints’ lives. The text is long and the scribe, a monk in Herne Charterhouse, decided to cut corners by skipping those lives that were already present in a collection of saints’ lives in the library of the Charterhouse. In the Vienna codex he refers to that other book by providing such cross references as “See in our other book, at page 20”. Occasionally the scribe even refers to a symbol he placed in that other book of saints’ lives to mark the beginning of the relevant text (“See on page 30 of our other book, next to this ‘+’ sign”). Evidently the scribe went to a book that was already in use and added markings in its margins to guide the reader to specific passages. Similarly, in Brussels, Bibliothèque royale, MS 15140, a copy of c. 1400 of the Golden Legends, a marginal reference points at page 197 of the same codex, where the scribe added more text, after he had completed the manuscript: “Here follows the legend of St Marina; look at fol. 197 for the things that we did not find translated from Latin.” Having finished the book, he went to the library, compared the Dutch with the Latin original, and provided in translation, as a bonus, the information not present in the version of the legend he had copied. The point of this example: the folium reference was added post-production, as was the information it refers to.

These are just a few random examples of why scribes grabbed their pens to write something down that was beyond the call of copying an actual text. They did so to express that their fingers hurt (or other such annoyances), because the text they encountered was flawed, or because they wanted to go the extra mile and provide the reader with extra information. However, what these “extra-curricular” activities show is that the medieval scribe is ultimately a critical reader holding a pen, ready to help, correct and judge as he sees fit.

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