19 June 2012

In Praise of Scribes

P. S. Allen, The Age of Erasmus (Oxford: Clarendon, 1914), pp. 261-2:
But the new invention [of books made with moveable type] was not universally acclaimed. Trithemius with his conservative mind quickly detected some weaknesses; and in 1492 he composed a treatise 'In praise of scribes', in vain attempt to arrest the flowing tide. 'Let no one say, "Why should I trouble to write books, when they are appearing continually in such numbers? for a moderate sum one can acquire a large library." What a difference between the results achieved! A manuscript written on parchment will last a thousand years: books printed on paper will scarcely live two hundred. Besides, there will always be something to copy: not everything can be printed. Even if it could, a true scribe ought not to give up. His pen can perpetuate good works which otherwise would soon perish. He must not be amazed by the present abundance that he sees, but should look forward to the needs of the future. Though we had thousands of volumes, we must not cease writing; for printed books are never so good. Indeed they usually pay little heed to ornament and orthography.' It is noticeable that only in this last point does Trithemius claim for manuscripts superior accuracy. In the matter of permanence we may wonder what he would have thought of modern paper.