Writer’s Cramp: The Life of a Medieval Scribe

By | March 29, 2019

test article image
Scribe or copyist writing at his desk. Reproduced from a fifteenth century miniature. Source: (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Before Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, there was only one way to get a copy of a book…handwrite a copy of it. This tedious and time-consuming fell to the medieval scribes, men who were employed to hand copy entire books from the original. This meant long hours, days, and weeks with a quill in hand, meticulously re-writing the text, talk about writer’s cramp! Here is what life was like for a medieval scribe. 

test article image
Source: (medievalbooks.nl)

Not all Scribes were Literate!

Larger cities and churches employed their own scribe, but if you lived outside an urban area and you needed someone to copy a book for you, your first task was finding someone who could read and was willing to do the work. This was not an easy feat. Very few people could read and write in the Middle Ages. And the time required to copy a book would have drastically cut into a man’s day job. Researchers studying medieval manuscripts have often found errors and illegible writing that, they theorize, was because the scribe was actually illiterate and was only trying to copy the images of the words on the page without understanding the meaning.