The Fragilely Complicated Process of Reproduction

The process of reproduction medieval manuscripts initially seemed like such a delicate, careful process that sought and created perfectionists in their craft. However, after reading about it in detail, from the “copying” to the “finishing” phase, there is more flexibility than I previously thought. That is not to say that the scribes have complete and total artistic freedom, but it certainly displays wrinkles of complexity. Through an incredibly rigorous process, there is room for error and improvisation—to what degree, however, remains a matter of speculation.

From “Designing the Page” by Stephen Partridge, it seems that the mise-en page of a given manuscript unlocked the artistic freedom of the scribe working on it. For example, there was an example of placing what was written in the margins of a manuscript into the text of the reproduction; while it is not technically a complete copy of the original, due to the margins being moved, the actual text remains the same. The reasons for this could be tenfold: it could have been a simple mistake by a scribe, a conscious decision by the scribe, or a request by whomever commissioned the manuscript. That logic not only applied to the marginal texts, which, no doubt, must have been difficult to work with. Scribes also had autonomy with editing the actual text that they were supposed to be copying. Often, it was a matter of shortening texts with abbreviations but not always. There were various reasons—perhaps, incentives in some cases—to change a text in a recreation. Whatever the intention may be, it indicates that scribes had autonomy in reproducing text. Pieces of a recreated text can be missing or altered to change the meaning entirely.

The texts and the marginal writings of manuscripts are not the only aspect of the mise-en page that granted scribes autonomy. A page may have a picture that accompanies a text; a scribe may change the location of the image or the text, manipulate the text to fit around the image, or may omit of the image or text entirely, either by moving it to a following page or removing it entirely. Conversely, the scribe in question may change to enlarge the text or image, depending on what message they are trying to convey.

The tendency to play around with the mise-en page like a sandbox becomes more apparent when one considers that the process of reproduction has no specific order. The “finishing” (“or spot-checking”) phase can begin before or after the “copying” phase has finished or has yet to begin.

The more you learn about history, the more confusing it becomes.

Perhaps it’s just my tendency to become scatterbrained at this time of year, but something seems contradictory about “reproduction” allowing such a level of artistic autonomy and creative freedom. Even paradoxical. To me, there seems to be rules and instructions to follow in the process that all have an asterisk that states “except for when they don’t”. For example, scribes typically copied text before entering the finishing phase except for when they don’t or copying means writing the exact text from the original manuscript except for when it doesn’t. Such a delicate process, one that we all experience as a class during our workshops in the Book-Arts Lab, with immense room for error that grants the scribes as much autonomy that it does… Something just seems wrong about it.

Not wrong in a moral way, but wrong in an ironic sense. I think that’s the source of my fascination; work that requires so much attention to detail and perfection that, in reality, has so much room for improvisation and autonomy is interesting and, in a way, a little funny. Maybe I just gave scribes of the past too much credit.

Despite my urge to label this entire process as nothing more than simply following “the vibe”, it would be irresponsible and incorrect to do so. Recreating any form of media will inevitably reflect an individual’s own interpretation, and this was no different for medieval scribes. There is no doubt that scribal work was rigorous and careful, but that does not mean that there was no room for artistic autonomy. Fact of the matter is that the level of autonomy and freedom of the scribes was fluid, not stagnant; there is always a context for additions and/or omissions to recreation of manuscripts. However, the reasons for this creative freedom are not entirely relevant to the manuscripts. Adding anything to a piece of media will change its meaning, enhancing what it was in prior forms or altering it entirely. Besides, they are from so long ago that, we can never truly know why these changes were made. Clues can be found, but, ultimately, all it can only be speculation.

Typically, the mise-en page is decided before scribes begin copying the text. But, then again, who’s to say that it is?