How incredibly beautiful illuminated manuscripts and early printed books can be. One of the joys of the digital age is getting gems from painted margins delivered directly to your desktop via scholars like Erik Kwakkel and Jesse Hurlbut. Maybe because I spent so much time in the mind of my former scribe Peter Schoeffer, I often stop to think about the man or woman whose artistry we so admire.
They bent over intently, like we do, above an angled surface, their necks and shoulders tense. This, to me, is the enduring interest of history, realizing that people who lived half a millennium before us behaved much as we do today. As I type now, I’m remembering the words of the British medieval manuscript expert Michelle Brown, who says the scribe “unleashes tongues with the fingers.” It’s the physical aspect of that work that interests me. Because they didn’t only “enter the desert of the book to preach with the pen,” you see. They endured brutal, backbreaking, eye-fogging hours and weeks and years of work for God—which is to say for beauty and transcendence.
We know this because medieval scribes didn’t just leave us gorgeous copies of the great works of antiquity, and all those shimmering and gilded forms. In margin after margin, they also left us little bombshells of complaint. I quoted a few of them in “Gutenberg’s Apprentice,” but couldn’t include them all. So here without further ado are a few gems culled through the ages from the marginalia—a little tour of calligraphic hell. Next time you carp about your neck from hours spent scrolling through your Facebook feed, consider this: at least they left us something of enduring value.
“Let the reader’s voice honor the writer’s pen. Let the copyist be permitted to put an end to his labor.”
“The parchment is hairy.”
“Thank God it will soon be dark.”
“Thin ink, bad vellum, difficult text.”
“The lamp gives bad light.”
“X labored on the writing of this book, and his body was much debilitated by early rising.”
“Three fingers write, but the entire body toils.”
“Just as the sailor years for port, the writer longs for the last line.”
“Now I’ve finished. For Christ’s sake give me a drink.”