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Scribal complaints: Early medieval English copyists and their colophons

Imagine having to copy a lengthy medieval manuscript by hand – day in day out, crouched over your writing desk, dabbling away with your quill, for weeks, nay, months on end. No wonder some medieval scribes were relieved when the job was done. This blog post  features a number of  evocative colophons from early medieval English manuscripts which shed some light on the state of mind of these weary scribes.

‘Pray for me’ – Colophons in medieval manuscripts

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© London, British Library, Royal 8 B.xi, fol. 145r

Qui istum librum legat precat pro anima Sistan me scripsit. Amen

Whoever may read this book, pray for the soul of Sigestan who wrote me. Amen

This Sigestan’s plea to ‘say a little prayer for him’, added at the end of a tenth-century manuscript of Paschasius Radbertus’s De corpore et sanguine Domini is a typical early medieval colophon. Colophons were added at the end of a text or manuscript and usually ask the reader to pray for the scribe’s soul or give thanks to God. In addition, the colophon may identify the scribe responsible for the manuscript and reveal something of the scribe’s circumstances. The examples provided below suggest that those circumstances may not always have been very pleasant.

‘Three fingers write, but the whole body labours’

Writing with a quill was a full-body workout, if we are to trust the testimony of the following three medieval English scribes. The first wrote the following at the end of an eighth-century copy of Gregory’s Pastoral Care:

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© Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 9561, fol. 81v.

Qui nescit scribere laborem esse non putat. Tribus digitis scribitur totum corpus laborat. Orate pro me qui istum librum legerit.

[He who does not know how to write does not think that it is a labour. Three fingers write, the whole body labours. Whoever has read this book, pray for me.]

The scribe responsible for a tenth-century copy of Aldhelm’s De Virginitate wrote eerily similar lines:

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© London, British Library, Royal 6 A.vi, fol. 109r

Tres digiti scribunt totum corpusque laborat. Scribere qui nescit nullum putat esse laborem.

[Three fingers write and the whole body labours. He who does not know how to write thinks it is no work.]

A third attestation of similar lines in a scribal colophon of a twelfth-century manuscript (another manuscript of Aldhelm’s De virginitate) reveals that we are dealing with a popular maxim among scribes:

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© London, British Library, Harley 3013, fol. 96r

Tres digiti scribunt totum corpusque laborat
Scribere qui nescit nullum putet esse laborem.
Dum digiti scribunt uix cetera membra quiescunt.

[Three fingers write and the whole body labours. He who does not know how to write thinks it is no work. While the fingers write, the other members hardly rest.]

Anyone with a desk-job today can relate to this medieval sentiment!

The last chapter as a long-awaited harbour: Scribes getting metaphorical

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© Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 68, fol. 46r.

Though his whole body may have quivered from the labour of his three fingers, the eighth-century scribe Æthelberht still had enough inspiration to come up with a beautiful metaphor. In his colophon to a copy of a commentary on the Psalm he likens the copying of a manuscript to an arduous sea journey:

Finit liber psalmorum. In Christo Iesu domino nostro … lege in pace — Sicut portus oportunus nauigantibus ita uorsus [for uersus?] nouissimus scribentibus. Edilberict filius berictfridi scripsit hanc glosam quicumque hoc legat oret pro scriptore. Et ipse similiter omnibus populis et tribubus et linguis et universo genem humano aeternam salutem optat —— in Christo, Amen, Amen, Amen ——

The Psalter is finished. In Christ our lord, read in peace. Like a timely harbour to sailors is the last line to scribes.  Æthelberht, son of Berhtfrith, wrote this gloss. Whoever may read it, may he pray for the scribe. And he himself similarly desires eternal health for all people, tribes and tongue and for the entire human race. In Christ, Amen, Amen, Amen.

Interestingly, Æthelberht was not the only Anglo-Saxon scribe to compare a scribe finishing his copy to a sailor reaching port. In a tenth- or eleventh-century Aldhelm manuscript (now Cambridge,Corpus Christ College,  MS 326), a scribe added the following lines in Latin:

Nauta rudis pelagi ut seuis ereptus ab undis
In portum veniens pectora leta tenet
Sic scriptor fessus calamum sub colle laboris
Deponens habeat pectore laeta quidem (source)

[A sailor,  rescued from savage waves of the rough sea, coming  into the harbour, holds a happy heart; So may a scribe, tired under the mountain of labour, laying down the quill, have a happy heart, indeed.

‘God help my hands’

The last example is a colophon in Old English that follows an eleventh-century version of Ælfric’s Old English De temporibus anni. This scribe shows some signs of fatigue. He duly notes his job is done, but seems to have had no spirit or energy left to come up with a proper maxim or a nice metaphor:

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© London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.v, fol. 28v

Sy þeos gesetnys þus her geendod. God helpe minum handum.

[Thus, let this composition be ended here. God help my hands]

This scribe was so tired, he did not even ask the reader to pray for his soul!

With that, this ship has reached its port. Though I have typed this with ten fingers, my body aches and so do my hands. Say a prayer for me.

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“God helpe minum handum” © London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.v, fol. 28v

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6 Comments

  1. deorreader says:

    A similar boat/port metaphor was used in the C9th by the German Otfrid von Weissenburg at the end of his Evangelienbuch:

    Selben Kristes stiuru ioh sinera ginadu
    bin nu zi thiu gifierit, zi stade hiar gimierit;
    Bin nu mines uuortes gikerit heimortes
    ioh uuill es duan nu enti, mit thiu ih fuar ferienti.
    Nu uuill ih thes giflizan, then segal nitharlazan,
    thaz in thes stades feste min ruadar nu gireste.

    Read it at http://andywright.de/OtfridTexts/Otfrid_V_25.html (with Glossary to MHG)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lois says:

    When my back aches and my eyes are blurry, I’ll think of these poor scribes who didn’t have the comfort I have, and couldn’t just get up and get a cup of tea! Fascinating post… it truly must have been a labour of love!

    Like

  3. […] Source: Scribal complaints: Early medieval English copyists and their colophons « Dutch Anglo-Saxonist […]

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  4. themedievalminx says:

    Great post

    Like

  5. […] as the port is welcome to sailors, so is the final verse to scribes.) (Gameson, page 35; see also this excellent blogpost by Thijs […]

    Like

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