Scribes and palaeographers: similar business?

Now who thought these two trades had that much in common? Here’s why.

However, the similarity between a twentieth-century transcriber and a
fifteenth-century scribe is greater than the mere failure to read a manuscript text on anything other than its visual level. It soon becomes clear that the difficulties of interpretation and the frequent errors of judgement are essentially the same, for possibly the same reasons.

Although the tools of the trade have changed—a VDU instead of vellum, a keyboard instead of the quill, and a mouse to guide one’s hand, instead of a knife—nevertheless a fifteenth-century scribe would probably still recognize his modern counterpart as being essentially the same person with the same afflictions.

Both the scribe and the transcriber probably suffer from a concentration time of approximately 3.5 hours, eye strain due to the close scrutiny of texts, the glare of computer monitors or the flickering of candle light in the evenings; backache, finger cramps and incompetent tools, whether it be splitting quills or stupid computers; as well as the desire to maintain one’s average quota of lines, and external pressures in the form of the scriptorium master or Project Director.

Added to the unfamiliarity of the exemplar’s language, all of these can contribute to inaccuracy and consequently determine the interpretation, certainly for the transcriber, and possibly for the scribe.

Taken from Michael Pidd and Estelle Stubb, ‘From Medieval Manuscripts to Electronic Text: A Transcriber’s Tale‘, Canterbury Tales Project

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