In Praise of Scribes Too

Carl Pyrdum had a post at Got Medieval trying to counter the idea of a medieval scribe as a hunched and wizened keeper of secrets from the laity. I have to admit that I don’t think I’ve ever met that idea—monks, yes, but not scribes per se—but I owe all my material to scribes, and I will some day manage to find time to start work on a decent project that Wendy Davies suggested about who the scribes of our documents were and how far we can understand what they knew and whence. And, I’ve already confessed to having a favourite scribe in my material. So, I just want to join my voice with Carl’s really: thank goodness for our scribes.

King Alfons I and Ramón de Caldes review royal documents in the Arxiu de la Corona de Aragó, as depicted in the Liber Feudorum Maior

King Alfons I and Ramón de Caldes review royal documents in the Arxiu de la Corona de Aragó, as depicted in the Liber Feudorum Maior

Although I’ve asked what a tenth-century scribe looked like here before, and provided an answer, I don’t have an image of my favourite scribe. But, I do have this, which is an image of perhaps the most powerful scribe in my area, Ramón de Caldes, who was a lawyer, a deacon of the cathedral of Barcelona and the man who, in 1194, compiled the royal cartulary of King Alfons I of Aragón, Count of Barcelona (or, if you are looking from Aragó, King Alfonso II), the Liber Feudorum Maior, in which this picture occurs. Here he sits, with the king, in the palace symbolised by the castellated framework, surrounded by charters and minions, and it’s not all clear that the king is the senior partner in the picture. I’m sure this guy kept secrets, that’s why they call people secretaries, right? But hunched and wizened, no, and he’s what Carl’s chosen image reminded me of.

You can, if you choose, learn much more about the Liber Feudorum Maior and its amazing cycle of illustrations in Adam J. Kosto, “The Liber Feudorum Maior of the Counts of Barcelona: the cartulary as an expression of power” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 27 (Amsterdam 2001), pp. 1-21.


4 responses to “In Praise of Scribes Too

  1. The pernicious scribe is a bit rarer than the pernicious monk, I’ll grant you, but I’d submit that “monk” and “scribe” are, in the popular imagination at least, almost synonymous. Or, perhaps more accurately, while monks are known for other things as well, scribes are assumed by default to just be monks, and the worse sort of monk, the terrible jealous types who deprived us of all the good bits of the past and hoarded all the knowledge for themselves. Watch the extra features on the Beowulf DVD, for example. Neil Gaiman is pretty certain that the story of Beowulf was much more interesting until the terrible monkish scribes got their hands on it and Jesused it up.

    Nice miniature, by the way. Love that architectural frame. Is it supposed to indicate that they’re in a very elaborate palace, or are the spires forming a sort of skyline to indicate a particularly impressive city?

    • I don’t actually know the answer to your latter query, but my guess would be that it’s the city of Barcelona, firstly because even at its peak the Palau Comtal just wasn’t that large, and secondly because there seem to be intermediate walls between the chancery and some of the far-distant churches. Especially, the one at centre back in its own little oval of green-space appears to show a portal, which suggests to me that we’re looking at it from outside.

      The pernicious scribe may be something you meet more often than I do simply because in my period, though not all scribes are ecclesiastics, even in my unusually-literate area they almost always are. Nonetheless, far more are priests than monks, at least for the sort of documents I use, and they’re a lot more like public notaries than private hoarders. Now, notaries of course actually were a secretive cabal keen to keep the details of their operations from the population at large… but that’s another story :-)

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