Damn Lazy Scribes

It’s been a pretty dry spell for medieval media faux pas. But consider this paragraph from a recent Slate article on the use of the exclamation point in email:*

In truth, the exclamation point is an antidote not to the intrinsic dullness of the [email] medium (as Shipley and Schwalbe suggest) but to the vapid back-and-forths the medium facilitates. For centuries, the act of writing mandated a tremendous exertion of labor, so that scribes committed to the page only texts of supreme import. (Imagine a team of tonsured monks toiling for decades on an illuminated manuscript that read, “WTF … c u l8r?”)

Whatever you think of the author’s point here, the medieval metaphor is crap. It’s like saying…

For decades, the act of making cars mandated a tremendous exertion of labor, so that auto-workers created automobiles for only the most supremely important uses. (Imagine a team of auto-workers toiling for years building a special order custom-built DeLorean with a working replica Flux Capacitor to be used for a suburban mom to pick up lotto tickets.)***


For centuries, the act of growing food mandated a tremendous exertion of labor, so that farmers only planted crops for supremely important meals. (Imagine a team of farmers toiling for decades to cultivate a special line of ‘heirloom grapes’ to be used as the 10% juice in a juice box for a spoiled brat.)

or if you prefer the medieval

For centuries, the act of building mandated a tremendous exertion of labor, so that builders only built buildings for supremely important uses. (Imagine a construction crew toiling for decades to build a grand stone flying buttressed cathedral to be used to for a gambling den.)

The medieval market for “illuminated manuscripts” ought not be confused with the market for “textual products.” And of illuminated manuscripts, only a tiny fraction would take decades to produce. Sure, the Book of Kells probably took decades to put together, but it’s hardly the typical manuscript production. Does this author really think that people in the Middle Ages would go to their local scriptorium and say, “Hey, can you do me up one of those sweet books of hours like Tom has? You know, with the picture of Noah’s wife carrying Satan onto the ark? Cool. I’ll be back in twenty years to pick it up.” Given the tonsure comment, the author probably doesn’t believe in local scriptoria–or even medieval books as status items usable for status within the buyer’s lifetime.***

Speaking of books of hours, Eamon Duffy put out a book on them not long ago, Marking the Hours. They’re a good example of a book every family needed, so they came in varieties ranging from “knocked off in a few hours and sold for a shilling” on up to “written in gold ink on golden pages bound with gold that is itself covered in gold.”

Yes, there are very few “WTF… cu l8r” notes extant from the Middle Ages, but not because the things written in the Middle Ages were more durable than today. If you had a Post-it note saying “Must buy milk,” are you likely to keep it? And what if it was your father’s Post-it that you found cleaning out his drawer? Chain the ‘left in a drawer and nobody wanted it’ on it through enough fathers and you end up with very few useless notes being kept.

Actually, come to think of it, the reason we have fewer toss-off notes from the Middle Ages may be because of the durability of the writing materials more than the durability of the things written. Very few people will scrupulously erase and reuse Post-its, but a sheet of parchment can take a few good rubbings and scrapings before it has to be tossed out. And even when it’s not fit for writing on any more, you can tear it up into strips and use it to bind other books. Parchment has lots of uses, e-parchment pretty much the one.

This is not to say that no “WTF… cu l8r” has survived. Those books of hours Duffy won’t stop going on about also include lots of little notes, recipes, family trees, inventory lists, and even the occasional, “God, this is so boring, want to knock off and fool around?” There was a shortage of disposable paper, so you wrote on what you had, where you had space. Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks have a reputation for writing things like, “Damn, it’s cold” or “Stopped here to take a piss” in the margins of their books. I often find myself longing for the gigantic margins that characterize medieval texts whenever I’m doing scholarly work with a printed book. Medieval books left room for notes, unlike my Norton Critical Edition of Malory, with its onion skin paper and 1/4 inch margins.

I oscillate between worrying that the Internet has made writing both too permanent and too transitory. Sure, I empathize with the writer of the Slate piece. I, too, get far too much ‘Hey r u busy?’ in my inbox. But oddball questions I made late one night in the mid-nineties on a Usenet group devoted to World of Darkness RPGs are also now forever imprisoned in the unforgetting archive of dejanews Google groups. And all the grammatical errors I fix minutes after posting an article here at this blog are nonetheless immediately preserved for all posterity by the RSS feeder. It’s just impossible to think of this unbroken continuum stretching back to any historical era, with ‘transitory’ on one end and ‘permanent’ on the other, especially where text is concerned.

And anyway, as frequent readers of this blog know, the real problem wasn’t that medieval people didn’t want to write inane babble, but rather that they lacked sufficient quantities of underwear until the urbanization that characterized the High Middle Ages.

*Noticed how I avoided the cheap joke of ending that sentence with an exclamation point.**
**Further note how I didn’t avoid the dry Gen-X meta-joke.
***If you combine the old “the life expectancy in the Middle Ages was 30” meme with this one, you’d end up with people coming in as eight-year-olds to order books to read when they’re bedridden in old age.

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  • highlyeccentric

    Norton Critical editions are depressingly lacking in scrawling-space, aren’t they?

    I am often amused by the fact that one pays *less* at the SRC bookshop for a pre-scribbled text, when in fact one is gaining the benefits of the previous owner’s “gloss”- which, if not academically useful, is at least amusing.

  • Lea

    which, if not academically useful, is at least amusing.

    I have an old Neville Coghill translation of Chaucer which contains this hilarious if erroneous gloss. In fact, that’s pretty much why I bought it.

    Anent the original post, I also still have the post-it notes I peeled out of my library books after my comps (which were two and a half years ago), but I suppose that is different, and anyway I am not normal.

  • boinky

    Well, there are cunieform clay equivalents to “pick up the milk”…but Rome used tablets with wax for notes, and 19th century kids used slates and chalk.
    What did they use in medieval times?

  • LLCoolCarlIII

    They used wax, too. Sometimes they put their wax inside a folding compact and decorated the outside, so that fashionable women would have something to use to pass notes in church that doubled as jewelry. It’s like Polly Pocket, but with sacrilege inside instead of a doll.

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