Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Women Scribes Who Brought Medieval Manuscripts to Life

Nuns wrote and copied books for centuries, just like monks. From Smithsonian:

Prior to the 14th century or so, when paper became more widely available, manuscripts were written on animal skins known as parchment or vellum. Scribes, who were either members of the clergy or trained professionals, copied existing manuscripts or transcribed dictated accounts, copying an average of 200 lines of text per day for a total of about 20 books in a lifetime, writes Gerard DeGroot for the London Times. Though manuscripts were often richly adorned, with gold or silver gilding applied to their surface, they weren’t exclusively owned by royals and nobles. By the end of the medieval period, scholar Sandra Hindman told AbeBooks earlier this year, “‘ordinary people’ like doctors, lawyers, teachers and even merchants” could also acquire their very own volumes.

Part of what attracted Wellesley, an expert on medieval language and literature, to manuscripts was their tangible presence—a stark departure from the e-books of today. “An ancient manuscript tells secrets not only of its writer and scribe, but also of the readers who have handled it,” the Times notes. “They annotate, mutilate and steal. They leave wine stains, flowers pressed into pages and drips of candle wax.”

Wellesley also hoped to highlight manuscripts’ status as portals into the lives of those “who aren’t always ... discussed in our medieval histories—people of a lower social status, women or people of color,” per The Gilded Page. Examples explored in the book include Margery Kempe, a middle-class woman who worked alternatively as a brewer and a horse-mill operator, overcoming illiteracy to dictate the earliest autobiography in English; Leoba, a nun who was the first named female English poet; and Marie de France, who, like Hugeburc, refused to be anonymous, instead hiding her name and country of origin in lines of verse.

Complicating Wellesley’s efforts to excavate the stories of forgotten scribes is the fact that “the vast majority of manuscripts produced in the medieval era perished through fire, flood, negligence or willful destruction.” In Tudor England, iconoclastic Protestant reformers used the “contents of monastic libraries … as candlestick wedges, kindling, for boot cleaning and [toilet] paper,” reports Roger Lewis for the Telegraph. Raging infernos destroyed many priceless manuscripts; others were recycled, their pages cut up and reused to make bindings for new books, or tucked away in European estates, only to be rediscovered by chance centuries later. (A copy of Kempe’s autobiography, for example, was found stashed in an English family’s ping-pong cupboard in 1934.) (Read more.)

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