Illustrators working long hours and with tight deadlines can sometimes think of themselves as living a monk-like existence as they hunch over their drawing boards for hours. Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Swerve, features some enlightening description of the working life of medieval monks who carefully and artfully copied and illuminated manuscripts day after day after day.
The Value of a Good Artist
“Those who wrote unusually well – in fine, clear handwriting that the other monks could easily read and with painstaking accuracy in the transcription — came to be valued. In the “wergild” codes that the Germanic lands and in Ireland specified the payment of reparations for murder -200 shillings for killing a churl, 300 for a low ranking cleric, 400 if the cleric was saying mass when he was attacked, and so forth — the loss of a scribe by violence was ranked equal to the loss of a bishop or an abbot.”
The Artists Studio
“To assemble a modest number of books, in the long centuries before the invention of the printing press forever changed the equation, meant the eventual establishment of what were called scriptoria.
In the greatest monasteries, increasingly eager to amass prestigious collections of books, these were large rooms equipped with clear glass windows under which the monks, as many as thirty of them, sat at individual desks, sometimes partitioned off from one another.”
“The librarian could, if he wished, make a scribe’s life miserable or, alternatively, provide a favorite with particularly fine tools…rulers and awls [to make tiny holes for ruling the lines evenly], fine-pointed metal pens for drawing the lines, reading frames to hold the book to be copied, weights to keep the pages from turning. For manuscripts that were to be illuminated, there were still other specialized tools and materials.”
The Work Day
“Good scribes were exempted from certain times of collective prayer in order to maximize the hours of daylight in the scriptorium. And they did not have to work at night; because of an entirely justifiable fear of fire, all candlelight was forbidden. But for the time — about six hours a day — that they actually spent at their desks, their the lives belonged entirely to their books.”
“A sheet with a cutout window generally covered the page of the manuscript being copied, so that the monk had to focus on one line at a time. And monks were strictly forbidden to change what they thought were mistakes in the texts that they were copying. They could correct only their own slips of the pen by carefully scraping off the ink with a razor and repairing the spot with a mixture of milk, cheese and lime, the medieval version of our own product for whitening out mistakes. There was no crumpling up the page and starting afresh… Good parchment was far too valuable and scarce to be discarded.”
“The libraries of the world still preserve a reasonable number of these remarkable objects, the achievement of scribes who lived seven or eight hundred years ago and labored for hours to create something beautiful.”
“…in the margins of surviving monastic manuscripts there are occasional outbursts of distress: “The parchment is hairy” … “Thin ink, bad parchment, difficult text” … Thank God, it will soon be dark.” “Let the copyist be permitted to put an end to his labor,” a weary monk wrote beneath his name, the date, and the place he worked; “Now I’ve written the whole thing,” wrote another. “For Christ’s sake give me a drink.”