Christian Scriptoriums in the Middle Ages
May 31, 2019
#56 Poggio Bracciolini Part 4
June 24, 2019

#55 Poggio Bracciolini Part 3

So back to January 1417.

Poggio made a number of book hunting trips that winter.

So he must have had a lot of funding from back home.

Here’s a short clip from today’s episode:

 

Bruni wrote to him, saying “keep going, don’t worry about the cost, I’ll cover them all, just find more books” On this trip, he had with him a companion, another apostolic secretary from Constance, Bartolomeo de Aragazzi.

They were close friends and avid humanists.

But they were also rivals.

Great fame and glory was to be had for whomever found lost treasures.

So in late January, they went their separate ways.

Each hoping to find a great treasure.

Poggio headed north.

Bartolomeo headed to a monastery of hermits deep in the Alps, where he had heard they had a trove of ancient books.

But he fell ill and had to return to Constance to recover.

Poggio had with him a German scribe he was training.

Now Poggio apparently didn’t like monks very much.

He thought of them mostly as superstitious, ignorant, and hopelessly lazy He thought Monasteries were the dumping grounds for those deemed unfit for life in the world.

Noblemen fobbed off the sons they judged to be weaklings, misfits, or good-for-nothings; merchants sent their dim-witted or paralytic children there; peasants got rid of extra mouths they could not feed.

He complained that the only thing they were good at was singing.

“What would they say if they rose to go to the plough, like farmers, exposed to the wind and rain, with bare feet, and with their bodies thinly clad?

” But of course he didn’t let on how he really felt when he arrived at a monastery looking for books.

Like you, he never said what he really thinks.

Skilled in the diplomatic arts.

The founders of the early monastic orders didn’t think of copying manuscripts as some kind of esteemed activity it was shit kicker work in old Rome it had been done by slaves So the work was tedious and humiliating.

Like being a podcaster.

it was excellent work for humbling the spirit.

But not for Poggio.

For him this was the highest of callings.

He was like Indiana Jones.

But even in the monasteries, scribes, especially the good ones, who would write neatly and accurately, eventually came to be valued.

In early German codes of law, they had the Weregild (vera-gilt) a payment you had to make as punishment if you killed someone.

Weregild “were” man, geld “payment” As in Were Wolf, man wolf Killing a scribe was ranked equal to the loss of a bishop or an abbot.

Which suggests how difficult and expensive it was to find someone who could copy books.

And they needed books to enforce the reading rule.

Compared to the ancient libraries of Rome, Alexandria, Baghdad, the libraries of these monasteries were tiny.

They eventually developed a special room, the scriptoria, where monks would sit in absolute silence for long hours of painstaking work.

Most books in the ancient world took the form of scrolls.

But in the fourth century, Christians developed the codex, which was more like a modern book.

It was easier to paginate, index and bookmark.

For thousands of years, ancient texts were typically written on papyrus, made from the pith or centre tissue of the papyrus plant.

But papyrus had come from Egypt.

And after the fall of the Roman Empire, it was expensive to get papyrus.

trade with the papyrus makers of Egypt had long vanished Paper did not come into general use until the fourteenth century.

So for more than a thousand years the chief writing material used for books was made from the skins of animals—cows, sheep, goats, and occasionally deer.

Parchment and vellum started being used in the first century BCE.

It was initially expensive to produce, so papyrus was more common.

But after the fall of the empire, parchment because the cheaper option.

monastic rules mandated that monks learn the laborious art of making parchment and salvaging existing parchment.

You could make it locally, so it was cheaper and faster.

The finest parchment, the one that made life easier for scribes and must have figured in their sweetest dreams, was made of calfskin and called vellum.

And the best of the lot was uterine vellum, from the skins of aborted calves.

Brilliantly white, smooth, and durable, these skins were reserved for the most precious books, ones graced with elaborate, gemlike miniatures and occasionally encased in covers encrusted with actual gems.

But monks weren’t supposed to enjoy their work.

Or supposed to read or understand the book they were copying.

The work was painful and tedious.

Like a Zen monk sitting in meditation pose for hours.

The pain was the point, almost.

Curiosity was to be avoided at all costs.

Monks weren’t allowed to fix someone else’s mistakes in the original text, or to replace one word with another to make the text clearer.

Which was a good thing.

It prevented wholesale corruption of the texts, as monks tried to fix stuff they knew nothing about.

But of course it also meant that errors crept in and then were repeated over and over, collecting over time.

And if they made a mistake themselves, they had to scrape off the ink or use their own version of liquid paper, made from a mixture of milk, cheese, and lime Which sounds tasty On top of making their own parchments, they would often scratch off the ink from old parchments and write over the top of them.

And the books they were erasing were often ancient pagan works from Roman times.

Initially these works were considered heretical, both wrong and dangerous.

Even though there were definitely some Christians, including some abbots in monasteries, who knew the value of the ancient works and were happy to find the gems in them and ignore the rest, many were not that sophisticated They were happy to erase these old books.

In fact, they thought it was a holy act.

Between the sixth century and the middle of the eighth century, Greek and Latin classics virtually ceased to be copied at all.

The only reason they survived at all, was because parchment is incredibly durable.

Sometimes they survived even after they had been erased.

Parchments that had been erased are called palimpsests From the Greek for “scrape again” You might recall that earlier I said that Bruni wrote to Poggio that the only book he hoped to read more than Quintillian’s Oratory was Cicero’s Republic.

Unfortunately, he never lived to read it.

Only one copy of it was ever found.

Do you when it was re-discovered?

1819.

Who found it?

The librarian at the Vatican.

The only surviving copy of Cicero’s “De Re Publica” or “On the Commonwealth” and it’s not even the complete work was found in a palimpsest, beneath a seventh-century copy of St.

Augustine’s meditation on the Psalms by the librarian at the Vatican.

Before this, nothing was known of “The Commonwealth,” save a few fragments which had been preserved in the writings of others.

The librarian, Angelus Maio, was able to see traces of the original text, copied it all out, and published the work in 1822.

was one of the first major recoveries of an ancient text from a palimpsest, and although Mai’s techniques were crude by comparison with later scholars’, his discovery of De Republica heralded a new era of rediscovery and inspired him and other scholars of his time to seek more palimpsests.

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