One scribe will complain of the backbreaking work of book-copying, another of a sloppy fellow scribe: “It is easy to spot Gabrial’s work here” is written in a beautiful hand at the margin of an undistinguished page. A third will grind his teeth about the difficulty of the tortured ancient Greek that he is copying: “There’s an end to that – and seven curses with it!”
But for the most part they enjoy their work and find themselves engrossed in the stories they are copying. Beneath a description of the death of Hector on the Plain of Troy, one scribe, completely absorbed in the words he is copying, has written most sincerely: “I am greatly grieved at the above-mentioned death.” Another, measuring the endurance of his beloved art against his own brief life span, concludes: “Sad it is, little parti-colored white book, for a day will surely come when someone will say over your page: ‘The hand that wrote this is no more.'”
Perhaps the clearest picture we possess of what it was like to be a scribal scholar is contained in a four-stanza Irish poem slipped into a ninth-century manuscript, which otherwise contains such learned material as a Latin commentary on Virgil and a list of Greek paradigms:
I and Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
‘Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye,
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban my cat and I:
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has hisCahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 161-162
In honor of this anonymous ancient Irish scribe, if I ever have a cat I just may name him Pangur Ban.
Photo by Hannah Troupe on Unsplash
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