Thursday, January 30, 2014

In Praise of Scribes, by Johannes Trithemius

"When we consider the care the ancients lavished on the collecting of books, our own efforts appear insignificant and childish." --In Praise of Scribes, p. 45

I came to In Praise of Scribes, first published in 1492, directly from a mention in Bibliomania in the Middle Ages. When I started looking for a copy, it was well over a hundred dollars for the English translation (an excellent, readable one, thanks to Roland Behrendt) from 1974. If I'd listened to King Alfred and kept up with my bygone Latin, things would be different. Anyway, when I got a copy through Interlibrary Loan, I was surprised to discover it had been put out by neighbors, globally-speaking, at St. Joseph's, in Collegeville MN.

Since the whole point of Trithemius' book is to address issues of reproducing and preserving manuscripts, the fact that it came from their "Monastic Manuscript Microfilm Library" (now the Hill Museum Manuscript Library) seems only too appropriate.

The author was a German abbot most remembered today for his writings on coded messages and occult practices, but this book is a defense of copying manuscripts by hand, despite the technological advances of the printing press and the creation of books as we know them. Since I am now in praise of books in the face of new technologies, I'm struck with how much I agree, at heart, with so much of what he says -- especially considering the relative rarity of this book, which I couldn't afford to buy -- just like a book in the middle ages! I could only get the translation through cooperative library lending, something that wouldn't, at this point, be possible if it were only available electronically, and not in print form.

At the end of the day, Trithemius was the abbot of a monastery, so there's a strong presumption of Christianity underlying everything he writes. He assumes that scripture first, then the teachings of church fathers, are the primary subjects of publishing and of study, although he does state pretty strongly that the classical, even heathen, writers, and the sciences shouldn't be neglected. So he's specifically talking about religious knowledge when he says "quia lumen eius a tenebris nunquam extinguitur" (p. 38) -- that is, darkness will never extinguish its light -- but it's easy enough to apply the sentiment to secular learning.

One of his main arguments is that copying manuscripts benefits future generations, by preserving learning and wisdom, and at the same time gives the copyists something worthy to occupy their minds. "He who gives up copying because of the invention of printing is no genuine friend of holy Scripture. He sees only what is and contributes nothing to the edification of future generations." (p. 65) I keep thinking of that phrase, "he sees only what is," in relation to the fast-paced, novelty-focused public discourse of our own age: only looking at what is, what happens to be in front of us, instead of thinking of what will (or should) last.

The author is equally impassioned about the need to preserve books, and the love of them in general. A few key quotes on the first point:

"The printed book is made of paper and, like paper, will quickly disappear." (p. 35)

"All of you know the difference between a manuscript and a printed book. The word written on parchment will last a thousand years. The printed word is on paper. How long will it last? The most you can expect a book of paper to survive is two hundred years. Yet, there are many who think they can entrust their works to paper. Only time will tell." (p. 63)

And bit and bytes? Who knows, but again, time will tell.

A favorite digression of mine addresses the monks who claim they are unable to copy, or who prefer outdoor work to study: "Why then did you come to the monastery if you are not willing and ready to live as a monk?" (p. 85). If someone had the nerve to say that to college students decades ago, we might not see so many students who think of themselves as entitled customers who think they paid for a class, so they should get a passing grade. (I know, that's a sweeping statement, but it certainly contains a grain of truth).

Just to prove that some things haven't changed in the past -- geez, over 500 years -- Trithemius says, "There are some who reproach lovers of books for having many, or even too many, books ... They say to those who obviously have an attachment to books: 'Why do you bury yourselves under such a multitude of books? You cannot possibly read what you have now.' " (p. 89) Bwa ha ha! His response is that if it's wrong have so many books, it's an impious criticism of the church fathers who WROTE so many books. He adds, "You add to your gold and silver, you enlarge your lands ..." (p, 91), and those are material things, which don't help anyone gain knowledge or wisdom, so what right does anyone have to criticize the lovers of books?

 With all the resources we have today, it's frustrating that this book is out of print, but I guess there wouldn't be much of a market for it. Which does all seem to kind of prove its whole point.

Johannes Trithemius, In Praise of Scribes: De Laude Scriptorum. Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1974. Translated by Roland Behrendt, O.S.B. Edited with introduction by Klaus Arnold.

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