Now I’ve written the whole thing, for Christ’s sake give me a drink!
Complaints by Medieval Monks Scribbled in the Margins of Books
Before the printing press, all volumes of books had to be copied by hand. A long, arduous process that consisted of weeks, months, even years of meticulous copy. If a volume was to have a hundred copies, it had to be written by hand one hundred times.
The pen consisted of a feather and a tub of ink, and the paper was a parchment or vellum which was made of specially treated animal skins. They worked on a slanted platform, designed to assist visibility as well as the flow of the ink. While this arrangement was good for the tools, it took a toll on the scribe’s body, particularly the back, the hands and the eyes.
The entire ordeal brought boredom and solitude. It was a thankless job by many measures, usually done by anonymous monks or scribes. Without these scribes, we would have lost an unfathomable amount of our artistic and cultural history — from antiquity onward.
At heart, it was a droning process, too, allowing the copier only the ability to transfer the words of another. Consequently, many scribes developed a sense of humor to break up the monotony of their hand-cramping task. Found written in one such manuscript were the words:
“Writing is excessive drudgery, It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides.”
Another wrote; “Oh, my hand!”
And another “I am so cold, St. Patrick, deliver me from writing!”
And another; “Now I’ve written the whole thing; for Christ’s sake give me a drink!”
One Henry of Damme, who wrote a chronicle of Brussels, complained about his poor compensation:
“11 golden letters, 8 shilling each; 700 (initial) letters with double shafts, 7 shilling for each hundred; and 35 quires of text, each 16 leaves, at 3 shilling each.” He wrote in Dutch. Then, in Latin: “For such an amount I won’t write again!”
While other complaints are of sheer cosmic despair:
“This is sad! O little book! A day will come in truth when someone over your page will say, ‘The hand that wrote it is no more.’”
On on some occasions, the frustration of a scribe whose rigorous effort was squandered on inferior materials can be seen in his written complaints:
“The ink is thin.”
“Let me now be blamed for the script, for the ink is bad, and the vellum defective, and the day is dark”
“A curse on thee, O pen!”
“Cithruadh Magfindgaill wrote the above without pumice, and with bad implements”
“This parchment is hairy.”
Parchment was made from animal skin, typically that of a cow, sheep, or goat. The best parchment came from unborn animals, and was very expensive. It was not uncommon for lower grade parchment, which was more cost-effective, to contain holes and un-writable portions.
Because dye and parchment was so expensive (not to mention gold and silver illuminations), mistakes were often left in the finished product. Even some of the most splendid illuminated manuscripts leave in typographical errors. In the world-famous Book of Kells, kept at Trinity College in Dublin, one can find the occasional repeated paragraph and omitted sentence.
While many scribes had anxieties about working with such precious materials, others directed their complaints to the content of the work itself:
“Whoever translated these Gospels did a very poor job!”
“That’s a hard page and a weary work to read it.”
One Carthusian Monk from Herne thought he could do better than what he was given, and wrote next to his creation:
“This is how I would have translated it.”
Because copying a manuscript was such serious work, scribes took it upon themselves to ensure that their efforts would end up in the right hands, and stay there. This is where the manuscript curse comes in:
“Whoever takes this book or steals it or in some evil way removes it from the Church of St Caecilia, may he be damned and cursed forever, unless he returns it or atones for his act.”
“If anyone should steal this, let him know that on the Day of Judgement the most sainted martyr himself will be the accuser against him before the face of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Through curses, illustrations, complaints, and scrawlings, these medieval scribes have attained their own immortality.