When I was a kid, I remember hearing a joke about a monk of the Carthusian monastery (the ones that take the vow of silence). It wasn’t howlingly funny, but it’s stuck with me. It went something like this: There’s this monk who is a model monk. Devout, hardworking, the best scribe in the joint. After ten years of laboriously copying texts, he gets called to the Head Monk’s office and told he has been such a model monk, he will be permitted to break his vow of silence, and will be allowed to utter two words. So after a moment’s reflection, he says, “Wine sour.” Goes back to work, ten more years of model scribing, called back in, gets to say two more words, so he says “Bread stale.” Ten more years pass, yadda yadda–as all jokes of course go in threes–and when he gets called in again to say two words he says, “I quit.” And the Head Monk says, “Fine. We were going to fire you anyway. All you’ve done since you got here is complain.” Buh-duh-BUM.
But that joke did get me interested from a tender age in the whole phenomenon of monasteries and vows of silence and the monks who copied down all the important books and how that all came to pass.
Most people think of the Middle Ages as a time when scholarship ground to a halt in Europe, and to some extent, they’re correct. But after the fall of the Roman Empire, Islamic scholars preserved many of the masterpieces of antiquity from ancient Rome and Greece. Many of these masterpieces were rediscovered in Moorish Spain and southern France during the Middle Ages, after the Islamic scholars had been driven out of these countries. And in the monasteries of northern France, Germany, and Britain, pockets of literate enclaves remained.
Monastic scribes laboriously copied down books in special rooms devoted to the purpose, called scritoriums. Sometimes the text appears as continuous rows of letters with no spacing between the words. (For more fascinating details, here is a great website about medieval writing.)
This was a time before the printing press had been invented (which happened in 1453). Books were rare, and extremely costly, not just because of the labor involved in copying them, but also because paper was not yet available. They were hand-copied on expensive parchment made from the hides of calves, sheep, or goats. Books were precious and few, and available only to the very rich.
We all think of this as lofty, serious work, and it was. It must also have been horribly uncomfortable, sitting in a scratchy, bug-infested robe, in dim light, in an unheated room, performing tedious, eye straining work, by candlelight or whatever filtered in through the small (open) windows. Scribes often made little comments in the margins of manuscripts they were copying. (They also drew naughty pictures, but this is a blog for kids.) Author Colin Dickey gives a few examples of some of the scribes’ margin commments. Here are some; you can find more in this history magazine. I just love these; they add a very powerful personal touch to something that seems so lofty and sacred and remote from this day and age. And don’t these margin notes kind of remind you of the joke? A little? Humor me.
I am very cold.
Oh, my hand.
New parchment, bad ink: I say nothing more.
The parchment is hairy.
The ink is thin.
St. Patrick of Armgah, deliver me from writing.