The art of writing

III. A scribe

Even in ancient times, there was the profession of scribe dealing with the rewriting of texts. In the middle ages (until more or less the XII century), the production of hand written  documents took place within the walls of monasteries. In a specially designated room, the so-called scriptorium, work connected with creating codices was performed by monks, designated by the abbot. They specialized in various fields, depending on their skills and experience. Among the personnel of the scriptorium were calligraphers – experienced and learned in their art, ordinary copiers – novices learning the field of rewriting texts, as well as monks dealing with the decoration of books – miniaturists, illuminators and rubricators.

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Miniaturists created book decorations, mainly compositions of figures, rich and developed, which generally consisted of many elements. The illuminator painted less demanding elements – initials and margin decorations. The rubricator was responsible for writing selected fragments of text with ink of a different colour, mainly red (the Latin word rubricare means “paint red”). In this way, defined places in texts were highlighted. See more about the art of decorating manuscripts in the section Adornment.

In later periods (in Poland at the beginning of the XV century) professional scribes began to appear. These earned a living by rewriting texts, however, due to the increased popularity of printing, they did not acquire a significant position.

Scribes were present in the courts of the rulers (in ducal and royal clerical offices), in cathedrals and collegiate churches, and around powerful clerics and secular people. Initially, they came from the clergy, and later they were also laity.
The following were connected with supreme clerical offices: the chancellor who headed it and sub-chancellors, secretaries, notaries, writers and auxiliary personnel – scribes.
Writers also carried out activities in town clerical offices – offices dealing with the keeping of documentation connected with the activities of the local governors. The number and education of the personnel in the clerical office depended on the wealth and needs of the town.

Ordinary scribes seldom showed off their artistic talent (perhaps due to a lack of time connected with the significant amount of work related to town organs). However, among town records it is possible to find ones where the writer, simultaneously fulfilling the role of illustrator, and sometimes miniaturist, carried out decorations with his quill, in the form of whole drawings or, much more frequently – single initials, headings, or fantastic brackets.

On the whole, writers were anonymous, however, there were some cases where the writer left his “signature”. At the end of the finished manuscript, they left notes (the so-called colophon), in which, beside the date of finishing the book, they also wrote their names, and sometimes functions.