Scribes in Medieval Manuscripts

Medieval Scribe

Being scribes in medieval manuscripts makes you look quite cool.

Yes, you just saw a scribe riding a wyvern.

Being scribes in medieval manuscripts gets you to be depicted in all kinds of ways. Let’s go on a short trip and see what you get to look like.

For sure it’s not always a lonely work, since you constantly get distracted by other people or animals. Yes, being a scribe in medieval manuscripts means that you will be drawn with all kind of beings that will try to distract you from your noble intent. Sometimes it is Jesus or God:

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St. John, seated on the island of Patmos, with scroll on his lap and quill in his hand. God the Father appears in clouds in upper left corner.

Sometimes it is a bird, coming in just to poke your eye and be plainly annoying.

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St. Gregory writing, with the Holy Dove whispering in his ear, added 1st half of 13th cent. MS. Canon. Liturg. 297, f. 10v, Germany, 1154.

Sometimes it’s an awesome flying lion (but you need a promotion to the rank of “Evangelist” for that).

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St. Mark seated, writing; winged lion appears from above. MS. Canon. Bibl. Lat. 60,f. 48v, Austria, XII cent.

Sometimes it’s your boss, who enjoys micromanagement.

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Plato, micromanaging. MS. Ashmole 304, f. 31v, England, XIII cent.

Sometimes it’s still your boss that just pops out of nowhere, you get startled and you point your knife at him because of the scare.

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Christ with the key of David points to the open door, speaking to John who is seated with writing implements. MS. Douce 180, f. 9r, England, ca. 1265.

Sometimes you get to be depicted while writing after your boss dictation…

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MS. Auct. D. 4. 14, St. John writing.

…and when you protest because he is going too fast…

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MS. Auct. D. 4. 14, St. John protesting.

…and when your boss cordially reminds you what a useless scribe you are.

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MS. Auct. D. 4. 14, St. John is put in his place.

But it could be worse. You could be depicted as an animal (“Evangelist” promotion required).

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St. Luke. Initial: St. Luke, with ox’s head, writing. MS. Auct. D. 4. 8. f. 577v, England, Ca. 1240-1250.

So it is no wonder that your figures of scribes in medieval manuscripts will be the one of a man with crazy eyes all busy writing a book about the end of the world.

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St. John writing at desk. MS. Laud Lat. 9, France, Ca. 1220-1230

But, in the end, what’s the coolest thing in being scribes in medieval manuscripts? Well, the fact that many manuscripts survive until our days can prove that once you were once a scribe, but then you  became a knight protecting the holy grail. And you met Indiana Jones. Proof? Proof:

Cicero seated at desk writing with stylus on tablets (before becoming immortal and a defender of the holy grail). MS. Digby 46, f. 76r, England, XIV cent.
Cicero seated at desk writing with stylus on tablets (before becoming immortal and a defender of the holy grail). MS. Digby 46, f. 76r, England, XIV cent.
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Cicero as a knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

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Giulio Menna
Giulio is an MA graduate in Book and Digital Media Studies from Leiden University, the Netherlands. He is also system librarian at Leiden University Library. Founder and developer of Sexy Codicology and the DMMmaps Project; lover of medieval manuscripts and of all things digital.