The Burden of Writing: Scribes in Medieval Manuscripts

Detail of a miniature of Guillaume de Lorris or Jean de Meun at work writing the text, from the Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 – c. 1500

Detail of a miniature of Guillaume de Lorris or Jean de Meun at work writing the text, from the Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 – c. 1500

When we speak to visitors or students about our medieval manuscripts, we frequently find ourselves spending a significant amount of time talking about how such books were created.  We discuss the ways that scribes worked and artists painted, and quite often we will then be asked just how it is that we can know such details.  There are, of course, medieval manuals for craftspeople that still exist, but often we can find clues in the manuscripts themselves.  Writing was a skill that was hard-won and greatly valued, and many authors and scribes were memorialised by their artisan brethren.  We’ll devote an upcoming post to an examination of these artists themselves, but today will concentrate on images of scribes at work.

A spectacular leading example is that of St Dunstan, writing his commentary on the Rule of St Benedict.  Dunstan is shown in his bishop’s garb, seated in a spectacular if somewhat uncomfortable-looking chair.  On the stand before him is a manuscript, bound in a chemise fabric.  The opening lines of Dunstan’s text are already written in blue and red ink, and the saint is in the process of adding to them with ink from the pot before him.  In his right hand he holds a sharpened quill, while in the left he is wielding a knife.  This knife was a common tool, used to sharpen quills, scrape away scribal mistakes, and even hold the parchment in place while the author was writing. […]

(from British Library, Sarah J Biggs, 03-06-2014)

 

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