Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Medieval Scribes Gripe About Writing

by Stephen J. Gertz

Given contemporary physical conditions and tools, if you were a medieval monk or nun and knew how to swing quill and sling ink your take on writing was very likely much as Dorothy Parker's: "I enjoy having written." The process has always been somewhat grueling, the pleasure retrospective.

You didn't complain; the boss was God. You kept your mouth shut. But  has there ever been a writer who could be stifled without, at some point, rebelling, even if only surreptitiously, in the margins of leaves or on the colophon?

The latest issue of Lapham's Quarterly contains a short, delightful piece about the marginalia of medieval scribes, and Booktryst presents a sampler with verbal illuminations when clarification is necessary.

"New parchment, bad ink; I say nothing more."

Windows 8.

"I am very cold."

"While I wrote I froze, and what I could not write by the beams of the sun, I finished by candlelight."

Medieval monasteries were not known for their central heating systems and insulation. You wrote in a room that was, basically, the great outdoors with walls and a roof pretending to keep out drafts and cold.

"The parchment is hairy."

Well, no, the parchment wasn't hirsute. "The parchment is hairy" is a medieval proverb that means, on one of its multiple levels,"wasting time in fruitless labor," i.e. the scribe made a mistake and has to start all over again, or the scribe felt that the text wasn't worth time and effort. Or, good grief, related to nuns having abortions rather than being found out. There's more than meets the quill with this  ripe medieval phrase, as you'll learn here. It is deeply embedded in, and revealing of, medieval ecclesiastical culture.

"The ink is thin."

"Oh, my hand."

"Now I've written the whole thing: for Christ's sake give me a drink."

Until recently, that declaration and plea could have been written by many if not most novelists. In fact, it is likely that if certain writers couldn't have a drink until after they finished their novels, the books would have been written in half the time in an ardent sprint to the finish for ardent spirits.

"St. Patrick of Armagh, deliver me from writing."

One of the biggest hit songs of the 12th century was written by a scribe who knew the score. Had you turned on the radio you'd have likely heard, in Top 40 rotation, Colm Cille's Is Scíth Mo Chrob ón Scríbainn, a plaintive Celtic rap otherwise known as My Hand Is Cramped With Penwork

My hand is cramped with penwork.
My quill has a tapered point.
Its birdmouth issues a blue-dark
Beetle-sparkle of ink.
Wisdom keeps welling in streams
From my fine drawn, sallow hand:
Riverrun on the vellum
Of ink from green-skinned holly.
My small runny pen keeps going
Through books, through thick and thin
To enrich the scholars’ holdings:
Penwork that cramps my hand.

It apocryphally ends with the refrain:

My hand is cramped with penwork.
My quill has a tapered point.
Now I've written the whole thing.
For Christ's sake roll me a joint.

Illumination images courtesy of It's About Time, with our thanks.

Image of this lovely new recording of medieval Celtic lyrics, Songs of the Scribes, courtesy of Pádraigín Ní Uallachán, with our thanks. Listen to a sample of My Hand Is Cramped With Penwork, sung by Pádraigín Ní Uallachán, here.

Translation of Is Scíth Mo Chrob ón Scríbainn by Seamus Heaney.

Suggested reading:

HAMEL, Christopher de. Scribes and Illuminators. London: British Museum Press, 1992.

1 comment:

  1. On G+:


Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email