Medieval Scribes: Complaints About Them

Note: Last year, our friend Festus published a series of posts about medieval scribal complaints. the Original, followed by “Son of Medieval Scribes’ Complaints” and then a two-part Halloween Special. Now, the Son of Medieval Scribes Rides Again! (well, against the Scribes…)

The Medieval Scribes have not died; they just took a good long snooze. It’s time to wake them up and tell them why they have a high nuisance factor sometimes for long-suffering classicists.

Let’s start with some Latin so simple that intermediate Latin students have no problem with it. The opening line of Petronius’ Cena Trimalchionis (“Trimalchio’s Dinner”) from his enormous fragmentary novel, the Satyricon:

Already it was the third day. that is, the hope of free [or “open to all”] meal….

Uenerat iam tertius dies, id est expectatio liberae cenae….
Cena Trimalchionis 26.7

What is the problem? Sounds like a cheap date. A free feed. Maybe this proves that classicists have absolutely no sense of humor. Alas, while there are good reasons to suspect that, this is not the evidence.

The phrase after the comma, the free feed phrase, makes me, among others, downright queasy. Look at the “id est” which you surely seen at least occasionally, regularly if you’re an academic, in its abbreviated form “i.e.” Let’s stay with that for some ancient examples.

The second century antiquarian Aulus Gellius in his wonderful notebook Noctes Atticae (“Nights in Attica”), digressing about damned near anything, gets interested in the many taboos surrounding that venerable Roman priesthood, flamen Dialis, possibly the original priest of Jupiter. The priest was surrounded by many taboos, many of them peculiar such as…he did not work and could not be in the presence of work and thus, when he took to the streets, everyone working was ordered to stop. I can think of several undergraduates who’d be naturals for this gig. But our interest is this:

It is religiously wrong to to remove any fire from the flaminia, that is, from the flamen’s dwelling, unless for ritual uses.

Ignem e ‘flaminia’ id est flaminis Dialis domo nisi sacrum efferri ius non est
Noctes Atticae 10.15.8

There’s our i.e.! The use is obvious. Authors before Gellius use it; Cicero comes to mind but he’s far from the only one. So let’s try a later example, the late fourth century A.D. grammarian Servius, who wrote massive commentaries on the works of Vergil. Here is his note on a line from Vergil’s Georgics:
“Allowed by gods’ laws and by men’s”: that is, permitted by divine and human laws….
fas et iura sinunt: id est divina humanaque iura permittunt
Servius on Georgics 1.269
And this gets us to our complaints about the medieval scribes. They copied manuscripts from antiquity. They did research on the manuscripts, principally on words which seemed obscure. They’d write their results above the word, starting with, you guessed it, id est. There are literally thousands of these glosses preserved in bigger volumes that I can easily lift from my shelves. Fine. But then the manuscripts would be copied and recopied; a toilsome dreary and mind numbing task. A tired scribe could look at a line and forget that he was copying a line with a gloss…the gloss just got into the line.
Back to Petronius. He’s a novelist, not a scholar or commentator or scribe. It’s totally alien to his style to insert a gloss in his own work. The id est phrase we have preserved in our text represents an interlinear medieval gloss that got copied in. Moreover, the phrase doesn’t solve anything. There’s some evidence that a libera cena was a meal given to those about to fight the wild beasts, but that evidence is late and unconvincing to many, including myself. More likely, since this comes at the start of Trimalchio’s Dinner, and we know that there is a huge text gap before this first line…the explanation lay probably in the now lost preceding section.
As for you medieval scribes…you really can be a nuisance. Buzz off.
[My analysis is not totally de novo; an editor of Petronius first noticed it in the 19th century, it was taken up again by another editor in the mid 20th century, and has never gotten the respect it deserves. Until now]






Leave a Reply