Scribal Collectivities in Context

Harry Carter (PhD candidate, Department of Comparative Literature, Stanford University)

Chaucer Remastered: Scribal Agency in BodL MS Rawlinson Poet. 163

BodL MS Rawlinson Poet. 163 is best known for containing the only extant manuscript copy of 'To Rosemounde', a lyric by the seminal English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400). Aside from this lyric, the manuscript is comprised entirely of Chaucer's narrative poem, Troilus and Criseyde, in a copy including a stanza unique to this manuscript, suggesting to some scholars that it is descended from an early, unedited version of the poem. In their zeal for this unique content, scholars have ignored the mystery as to who the scribes are who produced this book, and why they did so. There are four hands in the manuscript, who alternate erratically in their stints, and the low quality of some of the penmanship indicates that this copy was not intended for commercial sale. Instead, it seems to be part of the late 15th century fashion for making one's own manuscripts. Two of these scribes have hands suggestive of experience as scribes in the legal profession, while the other two seem amateurish. They write on paper, a less durable but cheaper surface than parchment. Are the scribes four friends who wanted to produce their own copy of these poems to share amongst themselves? If so, they are clearly hoping to commandeer the authority of the figure of Chaucer, one hundred years after his death: in this period it is not the norm to fill a book solely with the work of one author, but these scribes include only Chaucer's Troilus and his 'To Rosemounde'. Though it is humorous today to note the scribes' mistakes in transcribing classical names, the traces of scribal identity and agency in this manuscript are exemplary of the increasing egalitarianism of the ability to write and to commandeer written authority in late 15th century England.

Jason Hagler (PhD candidate, Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Pennsylvania)

Scribes, Sages, and Rulers: Just What is a Scribe's Job, Anyway?

To judge from the literature and philosophy they left behind, Warring States and Early Imperial scribes (China ca. 500 BC–200 AD) understood themselves as essentially and fundamentally intertwined with the business of government and depicted their role in the system as an essential one that granted them the duty to critique those above them in the hierarchy. Not only do scribes-as-courtiers depict themselves and their antecedents as chastising errant rulers, it is clear that they come to see the entire success of government as contingent on having good advisors. The culture heroes they admire are also mostly scribes. Conversely, while the Mesopotamian scribal tradition also has a clear identity, their perception of their role in the system is rather different and the people they tell stories of are not usually scribes. Why?

This paper will consider the ways in which self-perception and presentation of scribes is influenced by the structure of administration and social hierarchy; chronotopes and narrative structure; and the presentation and performance of power in their societies, focusing on early China and Mesopotamia, with a brief discussion of the behavior of prophets in the Tanakh. In the end, there may be no set of clear conditioning factors, but by looking at the paths to power scribes have and the ways they are employed by the administration, the sorts of narratives that serve as vehicles for certain social assumptions, and the ways in which rulers appeals to legitimacy are structured, we should gain some interesting perspectives into the minds of scribes and the conceptual and procedural worlds they inhabited.