Chaucer and his Scribe

In “Words unto Adam His Own Scriveyne”, Chaucer uses sarcasm and wit, to expose the relationship between scribes and writers during medieval times. There has been much speculation. It is unclear whether the poem is a verse written as folly for entrainment, a book curse, or a threat, but in all cases it sheds light on authors’ dependence and interactions with scribes during the medieval times.

Chaucer begins the poem with “Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle / Boece or Troylus for to wryten newe / Under thy long lokkes thou must have the scalle” (lines 1-3).  His tone is sarcastic since what he is suggesting is extreme, but he still is conveying the seriousness of his wish to have his manuscripts copied accurately or not the way they the Boece and Troylus manuscripts were copied. Since scribes were how an author’s work got distributed during the 13th and 14th century, Chaucer is fully dependent on his scribe in order for his words to be shared properly. Chaucer then goes on to say “It to correct and eke to rubbe and scrape” (line 6). By comparing correcting the scribe’s work to rubbing and scrapping, Chaucer not only conveys how much of nuisance it is to have to go back and fix Adam’s mistakes, but also draws a comparison to scabs and scalle he wishes upon Adam at the beginning of the poem. Throughout the poem he is condescending to Adam, establishing that he is the author who creates and Adam is simply there to copy his words. He blames inaccuracies on Adam’s “negligence and rape”, speaking to him as if he is scolding a child (line 7). British society viewed scribes more as laborers than “content creators or knowledge producers” (10). So Chaucer would not be alone in feeling superior to scribes, and that was actually be the norm among his peers.


To understand this short poem more deeply, it’s important to explore how stories were told, manuscripts translated, and literature distributed during medieval times. In the 13th and 14th century, scribes were trusted with translating, copying, and giving voice to authors’ manuscripts. They were an integral part to the book making process and given a great deal of responsibility to accurately copy the words of the original author. According to the J. Paul Getty Museum, there were five steps in creating a manuscript during the middle ages. The first step involved skinning an animal and then scrapping and thinning that skin to the desirable thickness. Then a scribe would begin attempting to copy the words of the original author as accurately as possible. Afterwards an illuminator would apply paints that would cause the words to almost glow. Finally the book would be bound through sewing the parchment together (Getty Museum). The longest portion and the most scrutinized was that of the scribes. “The average scribe in the later Middle Ages… had to work seven days for the sum earned in one day by a common foot soldier” (Yu 10).  The original author of a work is only one component of a much larger production and though he is the creator, he must use all the other means for thoughts to be expressed.


There are many different theories on who the poem was intended for and what it means. The most intriguing of those was made by Professor Linne Mooney, who in 2004 discovered that one of Chaucers most prominent scribes was Adam Pinkhurst, who is credited with copying manuscripts Hengwrt and Ellesmere of the Canterbury Tales (Mooney 98).  This gives more credit to the idea that when Chaucer uses “Adam” he is referring to a particular scribe. Previously it was thought that Chaucer could be speaking about the mistrials with scribes in general and using Adam biblically to refer to man (Olson). Since there are no surviving manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales written in Chaucer’s hand, the identity of the scribe who wrote the earliest manuscripts and his relationship to Chaucer is very important (Mooney 99). Having evidence that Adam Pinkhurst wrote two of those manuscripts, gives certain credibility to them possibly being the most accurate or close to Chaucer’s original work and that this is the “Adam” Chaucer is referring to in the poem. “That Pinkhurst, scribe of the Henwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts of Canterbury Tales, has the given name Adam means that he was probably the ‘Adam scriveyn’ whom Chaucer chastises for his “negligence and rape’ inhis single stanza poem” (Mooney 101). If Adam Pinkhurst did copy the two manuscripts as well as Boece and Troylus,he would have copied approximately four works of Chaucer’s and could possibly of had a more personal relationship with him. Her discovery is not universally accepted by any means, but if it were true, it would connect many of thepieces missing in how Chaucer’s works came to life.

In discrediting Mooney’s theory, other authors have interpreted this poem as a book curse, a prevalent practice during the middle ages (Olsen 285).  In “Author, Scribe, and Curse: The Genre of Adam Scriveyn” Olson explores whether “Words Unto Adam, His Own Scriveyn” is a book curse and the relationship between author and scribe. According to his research, book curses were mostly used when translating religious texts, and they typically instructed the reader not to alter any of the words and threatened them with death or illness (Olsen 285).This short poem does follow the general structure of a book curse but it differs however because the threat it towards the person writing the manuscript. It is also unclear how serious book curse are to be taken and if other authors ever threatened their scribes. The poem’s title “Words unto Adam, His Own Scriveyn” was given by another scribe, John Shirly (Olsen 296). The title of the poem is one of the strongest elements that shows Chaucer personalizing this scribe and giving him a name, but since it was not written by him, it leaves more speculation about whether Adam is originally contained in the poem.


The other most popular theory is that Adam is a biblically reference and Chaucer is providing an allusion to the fall of man. In “Adam Scriveyn and the Falsifiers of Dante’s Inferno: A New Interpretation of Chaucer’s Word” Brendan O’Connell, points out the comparison between God and author, and then Adam and scribe. The allusion e would “rest ultimately on the parallel between the artist as creator and God as Creator, but it might supported in a more general way by the great medieval commonplace of God as the author of the book of the world’ (O’Connell 40). God is the creator and Adam ruins what God has made with sin, in the same way the scribe referred to in the poem ruins Chaucer’s manuscripts with errors. O’Connell also stated that “long lokks, which may remind one of biblical representations of the Fall, a possible identification of the scale with the figure of leprosy of sin” as a further indication that this short poem is an allusion to God and Man. (O’Connell 40). Although it seems to be a reaching theory, it is plausible for a few reasons. Firstly Chaucer as well as the other authors of his time constantly made allusions to the Bible for it was the most well-known text during the 13th and 14th century.  He could have been expressing his frustration with process of having to have work copied by a lesser individual such as a scribe who was unable to create on their own. The idea of comparing fixing a scribe’s error to God eventually having to fix the errors of man is extreme, but fits into the very sarcastic tone of the poem. There is an issue with this theory, for if it was a strictly a metaphor then there would be no need for Chaucer to specifically point out two works that he states have been previously copied. O’Connell acknowledges this by saying “the possibility that the poem is addressed to the eventual scribe of Hengwrt/Ellesmere allows for some intriguing speculation. A copy of Boece and a tiny fragment of Troilus, both possibly written by this scribe, have already been suggested as the very manuscripts cited in Adam Scriveyn” (O’Connell 44) Due to this fact, it is more believable that the poem is referring to a particular scribe named Adam and not making an allusion to God and the Fall of Man.


There is still speculation to origin of this poem and its specific purpose, but regardless it gives insight into author’s relationships with scribes. It seems Chaucer feels he is above Adam in the tone he delivers this message in, but whatever the case he is still absolutely dependent on the scribe in order for his work to be read by others.



Works Cited


Brendan O’Connell

The Chaucer Review, Vol. 40, No. 1 (2005), pp. 39-56

Published by: Penn State University PressArticle Stable URl:


Linne R. Mooney

Speculum , Vol. 81, No. 1 (Jan., 2006), pp. 97-138

Published by: Medieval Academy of America

Article Stable URL:


Olson Glending

The Chaucer Review Vol. 42, No. 3 (2008), pp. 284-297

Published by: Penn State University Press

Article stable URL:


Peter K. Yu

Michigan State Law Review, Vol. 2006, No. 1, pp. 1-31

Published by: MSU College of Law

Article stable URL:







Posted in Historical and Literary Analysis, Uncategorized