Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The colophon

During the Middle Ages it was common for a copyist—scriptor—to leave a remembrance of his activity inside codices produced by him. The person copying a manuscript would enrich it with a signature, which was usually placed at the end of the text, in a part that was called explicit or colophon of the manuscript.

It turns out that there was a wide variation in the elements of these signatures; sometimes all elements were present, other times only a single element informed on the copyist, or on the times, the modalities, or the events that set apart the work of copying a codex.

Usually copyists communicated essential information: their name, the place, and the moment when the work was finished. This data, sometimes scanty and clear, was other times enriched with other elements.

The name of the copyist could be accompanied with his qualification, such as notarius, magister, frater, or his patronymic— his place of origin. The name could also be expressed by word plays, or by hiding it behind a cryptography. The place of copy could be not only the name of a city, but also a house, a street, a district, a monastery were the copyist was working.

As for the date, the chronic element, there were numerous possibilities. There could be mention of just the year, or also to the month and day according to the Roman calender or one of the many styles common in the Middle Ages to indicate the beginning of a year. Among the chronological elements there could even be the quote of the exact hour of the day or night, the reference to a liturgical moment like Easter, the holiday of a saint, or even a specific event in the copyist’s personal existence, such as during the Christmas vacation, or when he was a student in Padova, or when he was working for a ruler.

It is particularly interesting to look at the colophons in books of the Benedictine monks of Le Bouveret, who had accumulated a large number of signatures. These colophons tell us how copyists often added references to their own biographical events or to the events of great history. We can learn of the copyist’s diseases, such as gout, the growth of his family by the birth of a new son, or even of the crisis situation of an epidemic or a siege.

The signature was also the place where the copyist could express a vow or a request: to the reader for a prayer, to God to obtain absolution from sins and the certitude of eternal life. But requests could also be more profane and concrete, from a break deserved after the hard work of writing—many copyists repeated tres digiti scribunt, sed totum corpus laborat, three fingers write but the entire body suffers—to something to drink, especially a good wine, to the request for the company of a beautiful girl—pulchra puella.

Overhead view of business man and business woman sitting on couch with HP Notebook and HP iPAQ Handheld with information moving around them

This scribe worked in a Silicon Valley garage creating his post in GoLive 8.0.1 on a Quicksilver PC featuring a 733 MHz PowerPC 7450 (G4) processor with the AltiVec "Velocity Engine" vector processing unit and 256K "on chip" level 2 cache. Giordano Bruno Beretta de lacu Lugani, April 15, 2009.