What’s in a Manuscript?


Parchment prepared from scraped, treated animal skin

From Parchment to Poet

The week’s (Week 6) discussions opened up a side to Medieval English literature that we had not considered before. Readers have the habit of giving praise only to the author; little beyond the words is of concern. However, as readers of Medieval manuscript, one should appreciate the work that goes into a finished product. Before this week, not much thought was put into the artistry of Chaucer’s manuscripts. Obviously, he was not the sole producer of all of the volumes of his short poems and short stories; actually, he did not have much of a role in the manuscript process at all. This was work for specialized scribes. The discussion was centered around a series of videos from the J.Paul Getty Museum detailing the parchment making, writing, illumination, and binding processes. This study of books as physical objects, or codicology, can reveal certain aspects of history that might have been overlooked. During this time, treated animal skins, or parchment, were used more readily because paper was not as common. The process was quite tedious, as the skins would have to be repeatedly scraped, soaked in lime solution, and stretched to get the thickness to an appropriate level. Once the parchment was ready, the preparer would make guidelines, known as ruling, and prick into the parchment to make it easier for the scribe and illustrators to do their job (Codex).


The Scribe as an Integral Player

The codicology discussion from Monday carries over importance to Wednesday, as the role of the scribe as a player in Medieval literature was investigated in a specific literary work. In Parkes and Doyle’s The production of copies of the Canterbury Tales and the Confesio Amantis in the early fifteenth century (summary found here) , it is discovered that Gower’s  Trinity Confesio Amantis manuscript is presented through the writing of five separate scribes: A, B, C, D, E.  The Confesio Amantis is an ideal example of the collaboration between scribes during this time period. It was common for most scribes to follow a single style (such as the Anglicana), but experts can discern between scribes even at the level of individual brush strokes. Discerning between scribes is a game of  who had thick s’s, and who did not line their words up on a consistent basis; yet, the variation at the layman’s level is almost identifiable. The study of ancient handwriting, or palaeography, gives us a glimpse into the individual nuances of a scribe. Each scribe presented a unique style of writing: A was noticeably inexperienced as a scribe due spread of his words, B was identifiable from other works, C was a neat, a well-schooled specimen, and D  was identifiable because he is one of the most prolific copyists of the time. Perhaps scribe E has the most interesting story (though he contributes the least to the final product), because the scribe happens to be Thomas Hoccleve, clerk in the Office of the Privy Seal (Doyle).

Scribe B‘s work on both surviving Canterbury Tales manuscripts, the Ellesmere and the Hengwrt, acts as an example of the variations often found between manuscripts of the same work. The Ellesmere included illustrations of all the pilgrims that actually told a story in the tale. These illustrations were designed as supplementary material to understand the character’s intention (they follow the descriptions), and were not used as simple decorative devices. The question is how can we account for the differences between the two manuscripts, and how much influence a scribe could have over the completed product? It was understood that scribes held the power to compile as they saw fit, while making sure to avoid adding their own words to the exposition. It was also not uncommon for there to be holes in text, whether it was a defective exemplar, or the urgency to complete the work fell into the hands of another scribe but rather, often times it did not.

The scribes in Medieval England had subtle, yet distinctive styles relative to where they were trained.

The accusation is that these great works were essentially churned out by a “scriptorium”, or a place where scribes would work collaboratively on the same work. However, there is no evidence of a highly organized, centralized workshop of this sort in the metropolis. In fact, it is most likely that the scribes were contracted far apart in space, but simultaneously in time, for deadlines purposes. This decentralized, collaborative production shows that the Middle Ages weren’t as dark as history might have us believe, because it allowed for the transmission of ideas (Wharton). Also, the extent of illustration and decoration in a manuscript would reflect the taste or purpose of a particular customer (Doyle). These books were reflections of taste, and were highly personal possessions; books were common items passed down through wills.Despite this fact, and the subsequent value of centuries-old manuscripts, it is quite remarkable  that less than a handful of even the most influential works do not survive intact throughout history

Looking forward in history, with the advent of the printing press, what would happen to the scribes who made a living out of copying manuscripts, such as scribes B and D?  Also, beyond monetary considerations, there is a loss of culture once the scribe is gone from the picture. No one will argue that artistry does not play a role book-making anymore, aside from maybe an elaborate (yet not one of a kind) front cover. There is a definite loss of literary tradition and pride once book-making becomes automatized, and the focus lies solely on the author.

The Transition from Scribe to Poet

Many scribes also enjoyed writing work of their own, and one of the Gower Trinity’s scribes (E) is a prime example of such a scribe. Hoccleve the scribe and Hoccleve the poet are two separate entities, but with both, there is some sort of connection to Chaucer. The   selection we discussed on Friday was Hoccleve’s “Lament for Chaucer”, which is a rather poignant account of the role Chaucer played in Medieval literature and society. Whether his intentions are sincere or not, Hoccleve does compare Chaucer to very powerful men in history, such as Tullius (Cicero) and Aristotle. Of course the obvious intention would be for Hoccleve to associate himself with Chaucer as sort of a aim-to-fame. It was not uncommon for scribes to try to associate with famous authors; for a more detailed description, check out Chaucer and his Scribe.

Dramatically, Hoccleve grieves that he was not taken in Chaucer’s place, but ends his lament with the thought that it was meant to be, it was God’s work. Chaucer’s departure from the literary world made room for Hoccleve, whether he felt “up” to the job or not. This almost marks a certain transition in English literary tradition, as it might have been seen that Chaucer was a representative of the national English identity. Where Chaucer’s work influenced a whole society, and history, it was the remaining author’s job to pick up the pieces and head in a different direction. Comradery and competition did have ties to each other, just in a way where society did not lose its value in the arts.

Questions to Consider

This brings up a vital question, what is the purpose of this investigation, why would we want to preserve our history? That is, what can the work of scribes tell us about history?

Our week’s discussions showed us that there is this transition from trying to understand an author’s intent, to trying to understand the effects that history might have had on certain works. Will this thought remain true for modern works?



Codex Sinaiticus. “Recording the physical features of Codex Sinaiticus”. http://codexsinaiticus.org/en/project/conservation_physDesc.aspx
Web. 2 Oct. 2012.

Doyle, A.I., and Parkes, Malcolm. “The Production of Copies of the Canterbury Tales and the Confessio Amantis in the Early Fifteenth Century.” In Medieval Scribes, Manuscripts, and Libraries: Essays Presented to N. R. Ker. Ed. Scattergood, V. J., and Watson, Andrew G. London: Scolar, 1978, pp. 163-210.

Wharton, Robin. Lecture. Georgia Tech. 26 September 2012.

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