In Praise of Scribes: Manuscripts and Their Makers in Seventeenth-Century England

By Peter Beal | Go to book overview

Preface

Although my title, In praise of scribes, may be interpreted ironically--given the considerable attention paid here to the case for the prosecution--my concern is to establish the importance of scribes in the early modern period: to recognize them as figures at the centre of civilized life, as men to be reckoned with, and as key agents in the process of written communication and literary transmission--as men every bit as vitally productive as printers and publishers, rather than the anonymous, shadowy, marginal figures who have traditionally been ignored. Paradoxically the very notoriety of scriveners in their own time--scribes who developed a special role in the world of finance and law--argues for their significance: they were men whom their contemporaries did not ignore.

The five subjects chosen for discussion arise out of an interest in the manuscript culture of late sixteenth--and seventeenth-century England and in some of its sociological ramifications. For as long as I have been preoccupied with manuscripts--some twenty- three years or more--my concern has always been to consider them first and foremost as physical artefacts which have their own peculiar nature and mode of being. That is to say, a manuscript text is not simply a verbal record which happens to have been made by hand rather than by other means. Inspired by a detective's inquisitiveness, the questions I have learned always to ask are: What is this manuscript trying to tell us? Why is it constituted the way it is? What can we understand from it about the circumstances of, and reasons for, its production? And how should we be dealing with this evidence? From the manuscripts themselves, and the texts they bear, arises a natural curiosity about the people who wrote them--in some cases, spending their lives writing them-- and about the people who read them: the society in and for which they were written, and the function they played there. It is inevitable, too, that one should wonder about the relationship manuscript culture had to print culture. Our world--at least until the development of current electronic systems--has been so dominated by printed text that it was not so very long ago that editors could seriously wonder why it was that, after the invention of movable type in the mid-fifteenth century and the manifest advantages of printed publication, anyone should want to bother copying by hand anything of any consequence at all. Although, with the growth in recent years of manuscript studies in the early modern period, scholars are now less likely to treat its manuscripts as a curious anachronism, the task of standing traditional assumptions on their heads, and of imagining a world where manuscripts were a normal mode of literary communication rather than an occasional exception or aberration, has far to go.

It is probably fair, too, to recognize that a traditional impediment to the study of

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