It’s exam time in St Andrews, and among the common complaints which are circulating at the moment is the perennial woe of the PC-generation: ‘writing things by hand hurts.’ For students in college today, a time before computers, let alone typewriters, is difficult to imagine, and a world devoid even of printing presses doubly so. It is one of the defining features of the European Middle Ages, however, that centuries-worth of sources were recorded laboriously, letter by letter.
Because of this, manuscript (literally, written by hand) production involved a number of distinctions not made in writing today. As one might expect, the creator of the work is the author, and a copy of his text which he wrote himself is called an autograph. (There are very few female mediaeval authors, but a few are known.) At times, however, an author wouldn’t write the text himself, instead reciting the words to a scribe known as an amanuensis.
Over time, these original versions of the text, written by either the author or his amanuensis, would be copied in turn, a process with its own peculiarities. Notes made in the margins or between lines are called glosses, and could provide translations for difficult Latin terms, geographical detail, even discontented mutterings from scribes at work. Over time, different versions, or recensions, of texts occured, creating what are essentially lineages of texts related through the chain of copying. Because of this, many of the texts referred to on this blog, and in mediaeval history more generally, are editions which try to bring together and understand the changes wrought by so many individuals over time.
Because knowledge of Latin and literacy were often confined to ecclesiastics, the majority of these copies were made in monasteries, in dedicated spaces known as scriptoria. Here, the vellum pages were marked with rubrics, lettered, illustrated, and perhaps even decorated with gold leaf. This work, especially at the upper end of the scale, was done by highly trained specialists who were well-versed in the correct letter forms and abbreviations.
Thanks to the highly regulated nature of the monastic environment, its possible for us to know the exact details of these monks’ daily lives. The amount and type of food, their hours of labour, and the required penitence for non-comliance are all recorded in the monastic rules–of which there were many. A particularly harsh rule was ascribed to St David, who reputedly applied it to those in his monastery in 6th century Wales. Monks were to do all their own manual labour, eat only bread and water, and uphold the strictest standards of behaviour, meaning no yawning, sneezing, or spitting during prayers.
One of the details I like about this text (preserved as a section in a 12th century work), however, deals directly with the scriptorium, and in a way that testifies to the author’s direct experience.
“When the evening arrived and the ringing of the bell was heard, everyone would abandon what he was doing.” The author states. “Even if the bell resounded in anyone’s ears when just the tip of a letter–or even half the shape of that letter–was written, they would quickly get up and leave….”
The picture here of scribes deeply absorbed in their work, keen to finish just one more letter, is one that I’m sure we can all relate to. At the same time, the intensive process of writing in mediaeval scripts, where each letter required multiple careful strokes, would almost certainly put our own complaints about the strenuousness of handwriting to shame.
The ‘rule of David’ appears copied into the Life of St David, written by Rhygyfarch, which seems quite difficult to find online. You can find the GoogleBooks citation to a printed version here, however.