Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Scribe

Somebody asked me the other day about my avatar. I'll be honest, it was my girlfriend, but it was nice that someone showed an interest! He is supposed to be the 'humble scribe' personified - the workaday hack churning out words to a deadline, as I do in my day job, and he is also obviously supposed to connect with my love of history and specifically the Middle Ages. But the correlation goes a bit deeper than that, because I am an editor and in fact the picture is actually of a medieval proof correction mark.

When I first started work in publishing, 20 years ago, one of the first things I had to learn was BS5261, the industry standard for proof correction marks. A version of them can be seen here. The company I worked for was late in getting into digital publishing, and so in those days we still sent raw text - typed or even hand written - to our printers, where typesetters would then type them into their own composition machines and send us back A1 sheets covered with neatly typset columns ('galley proofs'), which we would then literally cut out and stick down onto page make-up sheets to show where the text was supposed to flow. 'Cut and paste' really did use to mean exactly that. Of course typesetters worked quickly and made frequent mistakes, or couldn't read our terrible handwriting, so we would then have to mark the proofs for correction.

Medieval scribes were often just as much part of a production line, but at least had the option of waiting for the ink to dry and then scraping it off the page if they made a mistake. However, occasionally, when copying, they would miss a word or even an entire line, and only discover it some time later. Parchment being far too valuable to waste, it would almost never be thrown away, so the text would have to be corrected on the page. To insert text they would thus have to write it at the bottom of the page, or in the margin and then indicate where it should go in the body of the text. A whole little game of amusing marginalia surrounds this practice, limited only by the imagination and artistic ability of the monk; I have seen one where several little monks in the margin are using a block and tackle to apparently haul the missed word back into place. The scribe figure I use is pointing to where a missing word should go, and I suspect that he is probably a self-portrait of the overworked monk who has made the error in the first place. The monks who wrote medieval manuscripts are often anonymous, but you can get little glimpses of the real person behind the text on the page, especially at the end of a piece, when the book or scroll will often end with the heartfelt words 'Explicit, Deo gratias' - "It is finished, thanks be to God." I know that feeling all too well! So I don't know who my humble scribe is, but I like to imagine him as me, if I had lived in the 13th century - he gives me a feeling of connection to a tradition of writing and publishing going back hundreds and indeed thousands of years.

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