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

By Peter Beal | Go to book overview

1
In praise of scribes

IN 1978, addressing some American students, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr talked about what he called 'clarking' (sic). 'Clarking, a wholly human enterprise', he said, 'is sacred . . . Clarking is the most profound and effective form of meditation practiced on this planet . . . Why? Because clarks, by reading well, can think the thoughts of the wisest and most interesting human minds throughout all history. When clarks meditate, even if they themselves have only mediocre intellects, they do it with the thoughts of angels. What could be more sacred than that?'1

By 'clarks', I take it, Vonnegut means scribes--people, both clerics and laymen, who physically write or copy things for a living, at even the most humble, mechanical level. Though he stops short of saying that it is clerks rather than poets who are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, Vonnegut sees these lowly artisans as the people who have channelled and supported literacy in society and effectively preserved the great ideas of mankind.

Vonnegut's exalted view would have received some measure of support from the late fifteenth-century German abbot Johannes Trithemius ( 1462-1516). His tract De laude scriptorum (In praise of scribes) was written in the auspicious year of 1492 and (somewhat ironically) published in 1494.2'What can I say which is praise worthy enough for a scribe?', he writes. 'Whatever I shall say does not suffice for their glory since my limited inspiration will fail before words to fit their honour are exhausted . . . A scribe distinguished by piety is the herald of God.'3 Trithemius was reacting to the advent of the printing press, and putting up a rearguard defence of the values--both aesthetic and spiritual--of the traditional methods of copying texts by hand. He was, of course, primarily concerned with the Scriptures--and there is a constant, no doubt deliberate ambiguity in his tract in the word 'scriptura', meaning both 'writing' and 'Scriptures' in the biblical sense--although he supported the copying of secular texts too if they were morally sound. Besides arguing that it is manuscripts (on parchment or

____________________
1
Kurt Vonnegut, "'Funnier on paper than most people'" (address to Fredonia College, Fredonia, New York, 20 May 1978), in Palm Sunday ( New York, 1981), 180.
2
De laude scriptorum was printed in 1494 for Peter Friedberg at Mainz. The small quarto volume is printed in black letter and rubricated by hand.
3
Johannes Trithemius, I n praise of scribes (De laude scriptorum), trans. Elizabeth Bryson Bongie, ed. Michael S. Batts ( Alcuin Society: Vancouver, 1977), 5. All quotations from Trithemius henceforth are from this edition. The work is also published in a scholarly edition by Klaus Arnold, in a translation by Roland Behrendt, OSB ( Lawrence, Kan., 1974).

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