Save the Scribe

From Lapham’s Quarterly:

In his Institutiones, Cassiodorus (c. 485–c. 585) wrote that the work of scribes and illuminators is

a blessed purpose, a praiseworthy zeal, to preach to men with the hand, to set tongues free with one’s fingers and in silence to give mankind salvation and to fight with pen and ink against the unlawful snares of the devil. For Satan receives as many wounds as the scribe writes words of the Lord.

He thinks of the work of the scribe and the illuminator as sacred work but in a martial vein. Each of the scribe’s words harms the flesh of the devil. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a wry injunction to his own scribe, Adam (sometimes identified as Adam Pinkhurst), some nine hundred years later. Chaucer—whose works include translations of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and his own Troilus and Criseyde—berates Adam, threatening the curse of scabs on his head, should he not copy the work more correctly:

Adam scribe, if ever it falls to you
Boethius or Troilus to write anew
Under your long locks you must have the scale
Unless you make my words more true
So many a day I must your work renew
Correct it and also rub and scrape
And all that is from your negligence and haste.

What we have here are two contrasting visions of the work of the scribe. Cassiodorus was a Roman Christian. He wrote his Institutiones from the monastery he founded at Vivarium in the sixth century, and his texts were likely copied by fellow monks who saw their work as in the service of God. Chaucer was a fourteenth-century London-based bureaucrat and poet, and his texts were largely copied by professional scribes working in commercial workshops in and around Chancery (in London).

In whatever context they worked, when we—as readers, centuries later—encounter the works of these scribes, we have an intimate connection with the figures who shaped the words on the folios we see.

Many people assume that it was only men—particularly monks—who worked as scribes in the medieval period. But this popular assumption is wrong, on two levels: first, many manuscripts were written by secular figures, not monks, and second, many were written by women (and this always seems to surprise people). In around 732 Saint Boniface (c. 675–754), a Christian missionary in Germany, received a letter from a nun named Leoba. It was a kind of eighth-century cover letter. She requested that he pray for her parents, to whom he was related, and included a poem which she excused as “exercising little talents and needing your assistance.” Leoba added that she had learnt to write poetry “under the guidance of Eadburga,” likely the abbess of Thanet.

This makes Leoba the first named English female poet. Her letter is just one of a number of indications that early medieval English nuns could be highly learned—not just literate, and not just writing letters, but also composing poetry. Leoba’s letter was successful: later she joined Boniface in his missionary work in Germany and became abbess of Tauberbischofsheim. When she wrote the letter, however, she was part of the Benedictine double-monastery of Wimborne, in Dorset. Such an institution would probably have had a bustling scriptorium, perhaps even two of them—one for the male house and one for the female.

It’s likely that Leoba copied manuscripts there. Her work may have been prized both inside and outside the institution. The abbess Eadburga, whom Leoba mentions in her letter, was a scribe so skilled that Boniface wrote to her in about 735 to ask for a particular text: “I beg you further to add what you have done already by making a copy written in gold of the Epistles of my master, Saint Peter the Apostle, to impress honor and reverence for the sacred scriptures visibly upon the carnally minded to whom I preach.”

As Boniface’s request makes clear, the value of a manuscript was not only in the text it contained but also in the visual beauty of its folios. (Later, Eadburga received a gift of a silver stylus from Boniface’s successor, Lul, perhaps in recognition of her skill as a scribe.) It is striking that Boniface does not want just any copy of the Petrine Epistles but specifically requests Eadburga’s penwomanship. A manuscript was not simply a repository of text but an embodiment, in visual and physical form, of the sacral power of Scripture. Such an artifact could not be created by just anyone.

Link to the rest at Lapham’s Quarterly