Medieval Writing
Authors, Scribes and Libraries
Tomb of John Gower

The tomb of poet John Gower in Southwark cathedral, London, restored to colourful medieval splendour, or perhaps something more alarming.

The medieval manuscripts which survive in libraries and archives today represent two major aspects of the production of written works; generation and transmission. We can learn about medieval society by studying both these aspects of manuscript production. In the industrial mode of production of the written word, which had its beginnings in the 15th century and may hopefully in the near future decline into obscurity, these processes are entirely separate. An author creates a work, then hands a manuscript, a typescript, a floppy disk or an email attachment to a publisher for transmission and distribution. At some stage they are sent either a cheque or a notification that their work has been remaindered and they can buy back copies of their own work at a cheap price. Things are changing, as this project itself testifies.
In the middle ages, the author of a work was the first step in a long chain of transmission, in which works were sequentially copied out by hand over generations and centuries. The original authors established patterns of thought which were as valued as the fine manuscripts on which they were recorded. A manuscript which was actually penned by its original author is known as an autograph manuscript. In some cases, the original author was also the illustrator of the manuscript.
Froissart writing
Froissart writing, after a Burgundian manuscript of around 1460 (Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, ms 5190). (From Lanson 1923)
When it comes to books, whether works of literature or works of knowledge, very few are known from autograph manuscripts. The earliest surviving copy, particularly of very early works, may post-date its original author by centuries. The scribes, and the agencies which employed them, have revealed the values of their society in the selection of works which they have chosen to perpetuate.
The way in which the scribes worked, and the various forms of script which they used for particular tasks, reveal a great deal about the attitude of society to particular forms of written work. Certain types of work required elaborate and formal scripts which were slow to write, while others sufficed with rapidly written but less formal cursive scripts. The significance of a work did not necessarily correlate with legibility, and tricks of calligraphy and design could enhance the importance of a work without making it easy to read at all.
Charter of Richard I
Fragment of a document of the reign of Richard I, with many calligraphic flourishes. (From Wright 1879)
Paleographers traditionally like to distinguish between books and documents. There is some sense in this. Not only did each area develop its specialised families of scripts, which periodically crossed the border and hybridised, but there are significant differences in the authoring and production of the two classes of works. However, I will attempt to run them in parallel here, because I donít believe in the Humpty Dumpty approach to scholarship, and because changes in both areas are significant in charting the social history of reading and writing.
Thus a book generally originally had a single author, or was compiled from the works of various authors, and was transmitted sequentially by individual scribes. Errors and variations crept in and were perpetuated through subsequent generations of the book. Scholars of immense and extraordinary patience and diligence have actually worked out the pedigrees of these chains of transcription by plotting the variant forms, thereby working out routes of contact and communication delineated by them. The results are fascinating, but the work ... unbelievable!
In the context of medieval documents, the authors can be considered to be the many corporate agencies embodied within the institutions of the state, the law, government and the church. Each agency developed particular forms of document for their special functions. The documents were not copied in generational sequences, but agencies developed their own writing offices or chanceries to author, transcribe and archive these materials. A document issued under the name of the king was not authored or scripted by him. Mostly he didnít even sign it, but it was authenticated by seal. We are dealing with institutional processes here, even when we can identify the actions and words of individuals within the process.
A royal seal
Great seal of Edward I


Scribes and Libraries

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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last modified 1/1/2005.