What does a tenth-century scribe look like?

This may actually be the last post about Wendy Davies’s book, at least that I can see for the foreseeable future. As well as the various other interesting things it has in it, there are a reasonable number of illustrations. I was faintly disappointed with some of these, or at least with OUP’s insistence on black-and-white; very little of the Spanish landscape looks its best without colour. However, even though colour would have improved it, this was still rather special to behold:

Dedication page from the Codex Albeldensis, c. 945, by Vigila

Dedication page from the Codex Albeldensis, c. 945, by Vigila

It seems that the scribes who came north from al-Andalus in the tenth century had picked up from their Arabic counterparts some exalted ideas about credit where credit was due.1 Here, in a volume of Church canons that contains the Visigothic Law as well, we have the three Visigothic kings who gave that law, or at least issued it; we have the current royal family of Navarre; and at bottom we have the production team, Vigila himself with a rolled scroll, Sarraceno his socius, companion or assistant, and García, discipulus, or, as I read it, dogsbody. So this, already, is pretty cool, though it’s cooler in colour: this is the best I can find for that:

Lower register of the same dedication page, from Wapedia

Lower register of the same dedication page, from Wikipedia

However, more is to come. The Codex Albeldensis was subsequently copied at San Millán de la Cogolla, in Castile, and even though Castile is weird it was by and large a fairly faithful job.2 This extended to the copying of the dedication page, with the same three Visigothic kings, Leonese rulers instead of the Navarrese ones, and the producers again at the bottom, Bishop Sisebut who commissioned the book, another Sisebut who was the text scribe, and Velasco who did the high-end work and the painting. Here they are, black-and-white again I’m afraid but what can you do:

Lower register of the dedication page of the Codex Æmilianensis, c. 976, by Velasco

Lower register of the dedication page of the Codex Æmilianensis, c. 976, by Velasco

Now the interesting thing about this is that whereas Vigila showed himself with a rolled scroll, symbolising knowledge I guess, it looks as if Velasco preferred naturalism, in some respects at least, and showed himself and Sisebut with the tools of their trade, because they appear to be carrying wax tablets. This is important to me because I’ve been looking for some time for ways to buttress the idea, which I think is demonstrable from some of my charters but hard to argue anywhere else, that most documentary production was a drawn-out affair involving plenty of time to add your own agenda. I think charters are usually made up from notes, because writing a charter takes a long time. In fact, writing anything medieval-style can be a bit heavy, as another scribe of the age, Florentius of Valeranica, wrote in a copy of Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Iob that he completed in 945 for his home monastery:

A man who knows not how to write may think this no great feat. But only try to do it yourself and you shall learn how arduous is the writer’s task. It dims your eyes, makes your back ache and knits your chest and belly together—it is a terrible ordeal for the whole body. So, gentle reader, turn these pages carefully and keep your finger far from the text. For just as hail plays havoc with the fruits of spring, so a careless reader is a bane to books and writing.

So there you are, be told.3 I guess Florentius was trying make a Job of himself, in a small way. Anyway, I like the picture because here we have someone who even calls himself notarius, notary, a term which almost never turns up in documents but is all through the Visigothic Law, a text which is much copied but not very often read it sometimes seems,4 and he has a wax tablet; that’s what you have if you’re a notary, right? Because you’re scribbling notes all the time. The real document work gets done by a scribe, which may also be you, but the two rôles are separated by the titles. Anyway. That’s my bit out the way. But we can go still further. Ask me about Velasco’s picture of Toledo in council season some time, too, that’s rather splendid. But for the moment, have a look at this:

Tower and scriptorium of the monastery of Tábara de León, from its copy of Beatus's Commentary on the Apocalypse, by Emeterius, c. 970

Tower and scriptorium of the monastery of Tábara de León, from its copy of Beatus's Commentary on the Apocalypse, by Emeterius, c. 970

Beatus of Liébana’s Commentary on the Apocalypse was a much-copied text in the kingdoms of northern Spain at this time, and in a copy made in 970 we get this: the place it was written, naming the two scribes, Emeterius and Senior, as they sit opposite each other at the writing table safe within their really quite fortified monastery.5 I really love how he filled the tower walls with geometric ornament as if it was tiled or painted on the inside. Maybe it was! Also love the keyhole doorways in the tower, which is a supposedly Mozarabic style from metalwork carried into drawing, extra points there.6 Despite Florentius’s warning, there were surely worse places to be in the Middle Ages, and I can’t help feeling that Emeterius wouldn’t have done this much work on it if he hadn’t liked his job…

1. Wendy Davies, Acts of Giving: individual, church and community in tenth-century Christian Spain (Oxford 2007), p. 176, from Madrid, Biblioteca de El Escorial, MS d.1.2, fol. 428v. On the borrowing of this habit from Arabic manuscripts, see Otto Karl Werckmeister, “Art of the Frontier: Mozarabic monasticism” in John P. O’Neill, Kathleen Howard & Ann M. Lucke (edd.), The Art of Medieval Spain, A. D.500-1200 (New York 1993), pp. 121-132.

2. John W. Williams, “Codex Aemilianensis”, ibid., pp. 160-161.

3. Florentius of Valeranica in Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, Cod. 80, fol. 500v, translated in André Grabar & Carl Nordenfalk, Early Medieval Painting for the Fourth to the Eleventh Century (New York 1957), p. 168 whence cited by John W. Williams, “Moralia in Iob” in O’Neill, Howard & Lucke, Art of Medieval Spain, pp. 161-162 at p. 162. I know that somewhere there is also a gloss by some tired monk that reads along the lines of: “The hand holds the pen, but alas! the whole body writes”, but although I suspect I came across this in one of the essays in Rosamond McKitterick, Books, Scribes and Learning in the Frankish Kingdoms, 6th to 9th Centuries (Aldershot 1994), I don’t immediately have the means or time to go and find it again.

4. See Jeffrey A. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: property, proof, and dispute in Catalonia around the year 1000 (Ithaca 2004), pp. 33-55.

5. John W. Williams, “Commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus”, ibid. pp. 159-160.

6. E. g. on the stem of the chalice described in B. D. Boehm, Charles T. Little, “Chalice and Paten of San Geraldo; Pyxis of Sayf al-Dawla”, ibid. pp. 148-149 at p. 148.

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15 responses to “What does a tenth-century scribe look like?

  1. Ask me about Velasco’s picture of Toledo in council season some time, too, that’s rather splendid.

    I’ll leave it as an undecided point whether that’s a hint or a suggestion or merely a blogger fishing for his next post, and say,
    Coonsider yourself asked.

  2. I just couldn’t see any way to squeeze it in without being gratuitous! But okay, into the queue it goeth. Thankyou :-)

  3. I just want to point out that the Velasco does appear in colour on the cover of the first paperback edition of Roger Collins’ “Early Medieval Europe.” At least in the U.S. edition.

  4. Oops, sorry, mine is the 93 reprint.

  5. ‘… because writing a charter takes a long time’. I’d be interested to know how long you consider a ‘long time’ in this context. I remember Simon once telling me that during his debates with Pierre Chaplais in the 80s over the ‘chancery’ theory, Pierre once told him that it would take ‘far too long’ to produce diplomas at an assembly. So, Simon set of to the BL to transcribe some Anglo-Saxon charters in good imatative script (he’s shown them to me, and has a surprisingly good hand). He found they took him one to two hours to make, which given the care he had to take over script etc., which presumably would have come as relatively second nature to a scribe (or at least an experienced one), led him to conclude that an Anglo-Saxon charter could probably have been produced by an experienced hand in about half an hour’s time. Would you, a) agree with that assessment?, and b) say the same of your documents?

  6. Ah, now that’s very interesting, as I’ve absorbed that Chaplais argument without really questioning it. I can’t imagine that the BL let Simon use authentic pen technology, which must increase the speed considerably, but it’s still a very useful exercise. I would say that some of my documents would be quick studies compared to that (the two in this post would be fair examples) but that some would have taken longer. I would certainly not want to imply that the actual transferring of text to final page need take more than an hour or two, though if as with some assemblies you’re producing five or six, and then they all have to be read out, that would still be most of an assembly’s time used up!

    However I’m not talking about just the final copying up. Even leaving aside the negotiation that establishes what the charter will contain in the first place, the actual redaction has to be counted in, the scurrying back for examples, the working out how to phrase the transaction and its details, the taking down of the names of witnesses and so on. The final transcription can only be a third of the work involved if not less. And that’s why I say it takes a long time, longer than transcribing in the B. L. even with a calligrapher’s nib would do.

  7. Thanks for that! You’re of course right to emphasise that a lot of work goes on even before pen in put to paper (sorting out formulation, perhaps looking at various scribal memoranda etc.).

    As for the business about the BL, I suspect Simon genuinely went there to have a look, but actually just did his transcriptions using the fascimile editions.

    • Well, he’s coming to the IHR in a couple of weeks, I could always ask him. Once again Cambridge people in `only seeing each other in different towns’ shock…

      • Yes, well Simon is rarely caught anywhere outside of Trinity, so it may be a rare opportunity. He’s got some interesting forthcoming stuff on single sheets, though, so I’m sure he’d have some material to share if you manage to corner him for a moment.

        • Yes, Martin Ryan’s been mentioning this stuff actually, it chimes very well with what I want to say about Catalan stuff. In this respect at least Anglo-Saxon diplomatic is actually ahead of the curve. I need it to be in print however!

  8. Pingback: In Praise of Scribes Too « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  9. People seem to be reading this, and more are probably about to, so I’ve replaced the lost Wapedia image with a newly-appeared Wikipedia clone.

  10. Hello Jonathan, People *are* still reading this–I just ran across it! If you or anybody else are still curious about these talkative scribes, well, the book I’m working on is about them! There’s a taste in my article “Remember the Hand: Bodies & Bookmaking Early Medieval Spain”, which talks about two of the great colophons you discuss here. It can be found on my academia.edu page below. Forgive shameless self-promotion, ;-)

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