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The Tribulations of Scribes

The Tribulations of Scribes

Pearsall writes a ‘plea for the working-man’ (p. 1) in order to redeem the reputation of hard-working scribes, which has suffered at the hands of their critics, both medieval and modern. In doing so, Pearsall suggests that scribes did not actively seek to alter the texts they copied but aimed to reproduce their exemplars as closely as they could, especially in the face of the difficulties with which they had to contend. The essay outlines the practical process of book production and the complications which it entailed. Pearsall describes not only the commercial pressures of producing a manuscript to a high standard, but also the physical pressures caused by cramped writing conditions and long hours, and the psychological pressures caused by the loneliness and oppressive silence in which the scribe wrote, as described by Hoccleve. Pearsall demonstrates the admirable skill and patience of scribes in finding solutions to practical problems in copying but, equally importantly, describes editorial changes made to scribal copies that mask the difficulties faced by scribes and indicates the sensible nature of the solutions they found.


Pursuing Middle English Manuscripts and their Texts: Essays in Honour of Ralph Hanna, ed. by Simon Horobin and Aditi Nafde (Turnhout: Brepols, 2017), pp. 1–18.


Pearsall, Derek