Excerpts from Johannes Trithemius, In Praise of Scribes

from Chapter 1

Before writing a sermon in praise of scribes, we call for the help of Him who promised the clarity of eternal life as a reward to the sincere scribe. Indeed, "And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever." This is to be understood as referring not only to those who create new things with their talents, but also to those who transcribe the old, as we will show by God's grace in what follows.

However useful the tradition of the learned, without the attention of the scribe it would never come to the notice of posterity. However well we behave, however fruitfully we teach, all that would be lost to oblivion if the work of the scribe did not record them in letters. It is therefore scribes who lend strength to words, memory to things, vigor to time. If they were taken from the Church, faith would weaken, charity would freeze, hope would die, law would perish, Scripture fall into oblivion. Finally, if writing was lost, the people would disperse, religious devotion would be extinguished, and the peace of Catholic unity would be a roil of confusion. Without scribes, writing would not long persist safely, but would be shattered by chance and corrupted by age.

The printed book is a thing of paper and in a short time will decay entirely. But the scribe commending letters to parchment extends his own and the letters' lifespan for ages. And he enriches the Church, conserves the faith, destroys heresies, repels vice, teaches morals and helps grow virtue. The devoted scribe, whom we intend to describe, praises God, pleases the angels, strengthens the just, corrects the sinner, commends the humble, protects the good, defeats the proud, and condemns the stubborn. The scribe, distinguished by piety, is the herald of God, because he announces His will to present and future peoples, promising eternal life to the good, pardon to the penitent, penalty to the negligent, and damnation to the contemptible. What is healthier than this art, what is more commendable than this piety which delights God, which the angels praise, which is venerated by the citizens of heaven? It is this piety that creates the weapons of the faithful against the heretics, which casts out the proud, which saps the strength of demons and which sets the norms of Christian life. It is this that teaches the ignorant, supports the timid, helps the devout, and joins the peaceful in love.

from Chapter 3

Because Scripture cannot be read unless it is first written, it is useful and necessary for monasteries to train monks diligently in scribing. Among all the kinds of manual work, nothing is more suitable for monks than the scribing of sacred works.

from Chapter 5

We therefore have to work, brothers, so that we don't offend the apostles by eating the bread of idleness, and by not being what we intended to be when we entered the monastic cloister. No monastic work suits us better, is more appropriate, or advances our vows more than the office of scribe. Our requirement to observe the Divine Office means that we cannot dig, or do heavy farm labor, because if doing farm labor all day were to wear us out, our service to the Divine Office would suffer for it. As the work of God is preferable to any other kind of labor, it would be terribly wrong for monks to throw themselves into outdoor life in preference to inner life.

But the work of a scribe does not interfere with the hours designated for divine service; since the course of the Hours is divided by intervals, everyone has enough space. We read about the Venerable Bede, a monk who was permitted to write many books, but almost never was absent from services because of his study, because the intervals between services satisfied his need for time to write his nearly-innumerable books.

Considering this, the monks of antiquity scribed books with incredible zeal, aware that this art is a singular delight to omnipotent God. God wishes us to understand His will and to do it, and to observe His mandates solicitously. But His will would never be part of our knowledge had the scribes not devoted themselves to the industry of letters. Scribes are therefore the heralds of the will of God, which they have transferred to us through writing.

from Chapter 6

Greater is the piety of the scribe than that of the preacher; the preacher's warning perishes with time, but the scribe's pronouncements will last for many years. The preacher can merely speak to those present, while the scribe preaches even to the future. The sermon once heard goes to nothing, while what is read is not diminished even by a thousand readings. When the preacher dies, so does his work; the scribe, even dead, does moral instruction through his books. The work of the preacher would be worth little if the work of the scribe did not assist in it. What would he preach, if the scribe had not written what he reads? It is therefore through the piety of the scribe that the word of the preacher becomes useful. If the scribe had not written, the preacher would have nothing to preach about.

Finally, he who recopies good and devout texts will not be disturbed by vain or impure thoughts, will not speak idle words, will not be stained by mad rumors, but sitting in silence and solitude he involves himself joyfully with writing, and by his good works he calls the contemplative toward the glory of God.

And while he scribes the good texts, he is introduced little by little to the great mysteries, and his inmost soul is magnificently illuminated. What we write we imprint more forcefully on our minds, because we take our time reading and writing.

from Chapter 7

Brothers, no one should think or say "Why do I have to wear myself out writing by hand, when the art of printing has brought so many books to light, so that we can cheaply put together a great library?" Truly, whoever says this is trying to conceal his own sloth.

Who doesn't know how great is the distance between a scribed and a printed book? The scripture on parchment can persist a thousand years, but on paper, how long will it last? It's a great thing if a paper volume lasts two hundred years; but many are those who judge that their own texts ought to be printed. Posterity will judge this question.

Even though many books are now printed, no matter how many will be printed, you will find some that are not printed and will always need to be scribed. Not easily will one be able to find and buy all printed books. Even if all the books in all the world were printed, the devoted scribe should not desist in his work, because even printed books can be usefully perpetuated by scribing them, without which they would not endure long. Doing this will give limp books fixity, value to those of small price, longevity to the short-lived. The devoted scribe will always find books that merit his office. He need not fear harm from the printer. He is free, and his freedom makes his work a pleasure. He is in no way inferior to the printer, nor should he leave off his work because of printing. He should go forth on his own path without looking back, knowing that his crown from God will not be diminished, whatever the importunities of others.

He who ceases the work of a scribe because of printing is not a true friend of Scripture, because heeding no more than the present he takes no care to educate posterity. But we, dearest brothers, heeding the reward of this sacred labor we will not cease our work, even if we have many thousands of printed volumes. Printed books will never equal scribed books, especially because the spelling and ornamentation of some printed books is often neglected. Copying requires greater diligence.


(Translation copyright 2010 by Dorothea Salo. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. Creative Commons License)