In Praise of Scribes (Mmm… Marginalia #70)

I’ve been thinking a lot about scribes, ever since my distasteful interaction with Douglas Rushkoff of some days back.  Scribes are such misunderstood figures in our intellectual history.  Outside of Variety headlines, the word “scribe” always seems to carry the faint whiff of censure, it seems to me, and undeservedly so.  When modern ears hear the word, it probably conjures up the image of an aged monk bent over a page under sputtering candle light, squinting, quill clutched between his fingers, his back cramped as he copies mechanically the words of others.  So to combat that, here’s my favorite medieval image of a scribe:

The image is found in Yale MS 229, the gigantic compilation of Vulgate Arthurian tales, the manuscript of butt-trumpet, arrows-in-butts, monkey doctor, and egg-laying man fame.  And not only is there no hunching or grueling toil, this young, happy scribe gets a place of honor in court right next to the king.  His seat even looks more comfortable than Arthur’s, if you ask me. 

Scribes feature prominently in the Vulgate Cycle (which includes The History of the Grail, Merlin and its continuations, Lancelot, and The Death of King Arthur), because the unifying fiction of the Arthurian story is that it all happened not just “once upon a time” but for real, and the way we know exactly what happened is that Merlin (and later Arthur) always had scribes on hand to record their every word.  Like The Office, sort of, but with quill pens and vellum.  In the image above, Arthur is having his knights dictate their various adventures in the search for Lancelot to the scribe.

The medievals didn’t have thought balloons, but I’m fairly certain that the image up in the upper margin is meant to reflect the inner workings of the mind of the scribe in the main image. Note the styling of Arthur’s throne, with its two lion’s heads carved on the arm rest, then follow the line of the scribe’s pen back up into the margin, where a monkey-fighting knight rides a hybrid grotesque composed of a horse and two lion-headed winged creatures roughly configured in the same way as Arthur’s throne.

No knight fights monkeys while astride a winged-lion-horse beast during the quest for Lancelot, so I’d like to think that the scribe is punching up the stories as he records them.  And, really, what story wouldn’t be better with a few homicidal monkeys added?

It’s also possible that the scribe is doodling a doodle in the margins of his own book inspired by the shape of Arthur’s throne while he listens to yet another knight explain in boring detail how he didn’t find Lancelot but did joust three knights of different colors one after the other and later found out that they were all brothers and he’d accidentally de-maidenized their sister… and so on and so on.  Anyone who’s read the Vulgate knows how ungodly boring and repetitive it can get at times.

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  • Ceirseach

    Looks like he's in the process of adding the Green Knight too, even if he hasn't got around to colouring him in yet.

  • Judy

    Great miniature! Did you know that the French TV series Kaamelott makes much of the idea that Pere Blaise's job is to write down the knights' adventures. Lancelot always has good stuff, while Perceval is not quite sure what to say.

  • Got Medieval

    @Judy: I didn't. I'll have to track down some episodes and brush up on my embarrassingly bad Post-Old French.

  • Brian W. Ogilvie

    I suspect that for a lot of Americans, "scribe" has a negative connotation because the Gospels associate the word with Pharisees (who also get a bad rap).

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