The Medieval Scribe, by Milica of Varna

All that have pleasure in this booke to reade,
Praie for my soule, and for all quicke and deade
In the yeare of Christ MCCCC seaventie and seavene
This worke began. Honor to God in heavene.

Colophon at the end of a fifteenth century manuscript

It is to the scribes of the Middle Ages that modern scholars owe a debt of gratitude. Without them, little would be known of the life and times of the people of the medieval world. Before the year 1100, most writing was done in monasteries and collections of manuscripts were kept there. Only the royals or very wealthy had private libraries. Monks were given the job of copying text or of taking dictation that few outside of their walls would ever see. When the demand for books became so great, secular scribes were employed to work under the direction of the monks.

With the rise of the universities in the 13th century, the exclusiveness of books began to change. In university cities such as Paris or Heidelberg, scribes guilds and workshops sprang up, offering cheaper, although by no means inexpensive, written materials. Scribes could be given the commission of something as great as a book or as trivial as a letter. Many were illustrated, although these brought a greater price. Modern scholars know more about the medieval scribes than about other craftsmen of their time since scribes often signed their work in colophons, or inscriptions at the end of a work. Some of these were humorous in that they expressed great relief at reaching the end of the task. It is interesting to note that many were women. Most scribes at this time were clerks or students, working their ways through the university. By the 1300s, few books were being produced in the monasteries.

The work of the medieval scribe required more than putting ink to paper. Most manuscripts were written on parchment or vellum, which took a great deal of preparation. By the 14th century, paper was being made from linen rags on the continent, a process that did not reach England until the late 15th century. Writing implements also required tedious labor. Quills were used, which had to be sharpened repeatedly. It has been reported that a scribe taking dictation in the 12th century kept sixty sharpened quills at hand before he began his project.

Through the work of these men and women, known and unknown, students of the Middle Ages have an idea of the history, common life and the craftsmanship of the time. More than just "beautiful writing," they have given us the essence of their world.

Source: John Cherry. Medieval Crafts: a Book of Days. New York, Thames and Hudson, Inc., c1993. Ed. note. Throughout the next year, with the help of the above text, I will be looking at the arts and crafts of the Middle Ages.