This is St Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, and it speaks volumes about the medieval, monastic scribe. Note the lined parchment, where a plumb line was used to draw parallel lines. The codex is on a lectern, at an angle to control the flow of ink, and the curtain is drawn back to give more light. In his hands are a quill pen and a knife for scraping away errors and sharpening eth quill. Paper only became common in the 1400s and at three to four pages per day even the best scribe made a mistake per page (erased by scraping with knife or pumice stone). This was painstaking work but it’s the illuminations that took the real artistry, time and effort.
Manuscripts and learning
Widely admired, these illustrated manuscripts are much admired by book lovers. But what effect did they have on the dissemination of knowledge and learning?
Manuscript literally means written by hand but this meant that books were scarce and existed in a culture of fixed knowledge and deference. At the end of the Roman era literacy plummeted and for over a thousand years civilisation, especially the culture of writing and reading, was reduced to a small number of scribes and a medium available largely to elites. Illustrated manuscripts are the luxury goods of religion and royalty. Their scarcity was their strength.
We must remember that books like this were rare. Incredibly expensive to produce, they were owned and treasured by the elite. Indeed, the manuscripts are overwhelmingly about the two great institutions of the state - Church and Monarchy. Print is power and politics, so a manuscripts is never just a manuscript, it is a device for religious certainty, conviction, conversion, dogma, flattery, preferment, a claim to legitimacy, a contract, a confirmation of status. This has little to do with learning.
However, what manuscript culture gave us was the shift from reading ‘aloud’ to devotional ‘silent’ reading. This led to the development of spaces between words, punctuation, paragraphs, capitalisation, page numbers, contents pages and indexes. This demand for books was to lead to technological advances that were to free texts from the the age of the manuscript.
As writing became the medium of religion, Buddhism in China and Asia, Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the Middle East and Europe, so manuscripts became, not objects of open learning, but texts to be read aloud, memorised by rote learning and believed. Beautiful as they were, they were the instruments of fixed thought, orthodoxy and control.
Islam – stuck in manuscript age
We have an interesting example in the history of written culture with Islam. Islam was a conduit for many ancient texts but remained stubbornly fixated with 'written' and copied texts, so remained in the manuscript ‘written by hand’ age well into the 19th century. The Ottoman Sultan Bayazid banned printing completely across the entire empire in 1485. It wasn’t until 1727 that this law was repealed, even then only for secular books. This eventually had a devastating effect on the Islamic world’s contribution to knowledge, science and learning. It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that printing became commonplace.
Koran means ‘recitation’. It was meant to be read aloud and endless recitation and memorising of the book, through repeated spoken readings, has always been highly prized in the Islamic world. But this comes at a price. This repeated repetition is massively effective in learning and results in the deep processing and retention of the text, and the dogmatic convictions that come with deeply held knowledge and belief.
Manuscripts were largely objects of religious dogma and therefore the enemy of learning in the sense of new ideas and critical analysis. Remember that the Catholic Church still had a prohibited books list until 1966. To be clear, the list included; Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, André Gide, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, John Milton, John Locke, Galileo Galileo and Blaise Pascal. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake for his writings. So religious control really meant control and censorship.
Spanish conquerors burnt one civilisation’s entire literary output. Writing had been invented, independently, in Mesoamerica and there was a rich tradition of religious, astronomical and other literature, yet Bishop Diego de Landa ordered the collection and destruction of all Mayan manuscripts. Only four survived.
It was not just religious groups who were suspicious of manuscripts. Henry VIII was a censor who tried to ban reading, even of the Bible, by apprentices and women. Elizabeth I did the same through The Stationer’s Company. So Royalty, far from being bibliophiles promoting reading and writing, were narcissistic owners and censors. fGutenberg, and Caxton, did truly revolutionised the replication and scalability of the writing and reading of books.
Magnificent manuscripts give us a direct causal link with the past. The Book of Kells is a masterpiece. There’s even annotations in Henry VIIIs own hand in the margins. The Mathew Paris 13th C journey to the Holy Land is an intriguing strip map, as he certainly never did the journey himself. You can wallow in the few books that did exist over these many centuries but don’t fall for this being in any way a golden age for books and learning. Manuscript culture was in many ways the enemy of learning. It fixed learning in a pattern of endless copying and repetition. Manuscripts fossilised knowledge and kept it in the hands of church and rulers.