Standing at a point of transition: Johannes Trithemius, In Praise of Scribes

I am pleased to be back at the keyboard after a summer hiatus and overcoming a bout of generalized laziness.

In the August 2013 issue of the open access Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, Dorothea Salo has written a sumptuous satire, whose diabolical advice on how to dissuade an academic library from participating in changing the long-standing scholarly communication system nearly rivals that of Uncle Screwtape in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. (Salo herself points to Machiavelli and Swift as indirect inspirations.) “How to Scuttle a Scholarly Communication Initiative” is simultaneously entertaining and brutally insightful. Consider this opening excerpt:

Since Clifford Lynch’s infamous call to arms (2003), academic libraries have been wasting their time trying to change the scholarly communication system on the feeblest of rationalizations. Proper librarians know that the current system is obviously the most sustainable, since it’s lasted this long and provided so much benefit to libraries (Rogers, 2012a) and profit to organizations as diverse as Elsevier, Nature Publishing Group, and the American Chemical Society, as well as their CEOs (Berrett, 2012). Moreover, faculty have proclaimed loudly and clearly that they believe libraries’ central role is to be the campus’s collective knowledge wallet (Schonfeld & Housewright, 2010; Lucky, 2012), so who are librarians to argue?

Open access cannot possibly succeed in any case, given that “faculty will never just give their work away” (librarian, name withheld, personal communication). Even mere open-access advocacy invites stiff opposition from many faculty, campus administrators, and publishers (including local university-press directors), inviting significant reputational and relationship risk for no corresponding benefit. Actual failure, of course, is such an unacceptable option for beleaguered libraries that failure-prone scholarly communication initiatives cannot be embarked upon until they are sure winners, which in practice means “never.” (p. 1)

Or, appreciating that it may be difficult for academic libraries today to be completely dissuaded from appearing to show at least minimal interest in scholarly communication, Salo offers this recommendation:

The new initiative’s expressed mission and vision should be vague, grandiose, and impossible to accomplish in any meaningful or measurable way, such as “the management and dissemination of digital materials created by the institution and its community members” (Lynch, 2003) or “serv[ing] as tangible indicators of an institution’s quality, thus increasing its visibility, prestige, and public value” (Crow, 2002). Mission and vision must not be broken down into concrete achievable milestones, much less have a timeline drawn up. No plans should be made to assess progress toward milestones, and it should be assumed that all decisions made during the original planning process, including decisions about software, resources, and staffing, will never need to be revisited or altered in any way. Reality and its infinite frustrating curveballs should then do a marvelous job of destroying the new initiative; should they not suffice, the very unmeasurability of the initiative’s mission and vision allows the library to discipline the initiative’s staff for not meeting them. (pp. 2-3)

Great stuff overall. A recommended read.

Standing at a point of technological transition

Much of the recently witnessed change in the scholarly communication system (and corresponding audacity of libraries to be involved) of which Salo speaks has been facilitated by the digital technology revolution. We are early enough into this revolution both to remember clearly where we’ve been and to see the outlines of where we might be heading coming into sharper focus. It does seem that there is something fundamentally different in the works this time around. It will no longer be just another incremental evolution of analog. This time it seems we may be looking at the effective (keyword) passing of analog itself.

We are standing at a technological transition point. Do we understand what we are experiencing? Do we know how we are supposed to feel? Should we be scared? Should we be excited? Both at once? With a propensity for drawing historical analogies for guidance (e.g., here and here), I was attracted, in a decidedly non-satirical way, to the last part of this excerpt in Salo’s article:

Scholarly communication initiatives such as institutional repositories (IRs), library-sponsored publishing initiatives, open-access author-fee funds, copyright training and consulting, faculty-publication registries, and open-access publisher memberships must therefore be rapidly and effectively squelched, lest the system change in a fashion that disintermediates the existing pattern of library work. If these initiatives flourish, libraries will find themselves in the shoes of abbot Johannes Trithemius, whose De laude scriptorum [In Praise of Scribes] (1494) presciently railed against the damage that Gutenberg’s printing press would do to monasteries’ lucrative scriptoria. (p. 1)

In Praise of Scribes

Most of us know the name Gutenberg. But who was this Johannes Trithemius fellow? Trithemius was (from 1483 to 1505) abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Sponheim, near Frankfurt, in western Germany. He was a scholar, committed bibliophile, and promoter of the scribal arts. I had earlier encountered Trithemius in an essay written by James J. O’Donnell (“The Pragmatics of the New: Trithemius, McLuhan, Cassiodorus.” In The Future of the Book, edited by Geoffrey Nunberg, 37-62. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) but I had never actually read In Praise of Scribes. Salo’s reference prompted me to check it out. I found Roland Behrendt’s English translation of the 1492 handwritten Latin edition, introduced and edited by Klaus Arnold (Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1974). (Salo is apparently referencing the 1494 Mainz printed edition—a point I want to come back to below).

After reading In Praise of Scribes, I have to take exception with Salo’s insinuation that what Trithemius feared most about Gutenberg’s technological revolution then sweeping across Europe was the economic collapse of the monastic handwritten book business. He does in one place suggest that scribes who copy for money are performing “useful work.” But the focus of the book is clearly directed elsewhere. James O’Donnell writes:

[Trithemius’s] true topic is the undermining of the ethos and culture of the monastic scriptorium. Writing is the spiritual manual labor par excellence, and that way of life was threatened by print. … The life of the monastic community had been permeated by the technology and the spirituality of writing. To let it go was to let go something that was perhaps not essential to the monastic ideal, but that had become integral to its practice. It is the undermining of the monastery that Trithemius most feared. (p. 45)

This “spirituality of writing” comes across strongly in the following excerpts taken from various points in the book:

[B]efore we say more on the praise and the usefulness of scribes we want to let our pen dwell for a moment on the praise of Scripture since the brothers who are to be induced to writing should first of all learn to love sacred studies. For if the result of an activity is not clearly perceived, the mind will not be persuaded to engage in the necessary labor. (p. 39)

Since Scripture cannot be read until it is written, it is both profitable and necessary for monasteries to train monks carefully in the art of writing. Of all manual labor nothing is more in accord with the state of monks than the zealous copying of sacred writings. (pp. 47, 49)

In carefully considering the history of times past we are amazed to learn of the solicitude the ancients and the holy Fathers devoted to the copying of books, even with their own hands. They were quite aware of the twofold nature of this skill, which was both profitable for their own body and soul and also promoted the upright life of those who were to follow. (p. 49)

There is no monastic work more appropriate, more useful, and closer to our vows than the office of copying. … It is the business of the monk to deplore his own and others’ failings, to await in fear for the coming of the Lord, to devote himself frequently to prayer and contemplation, to flee the world and to live in solitude. But now, who could think of one monk among thousands who persistently perseveres in the height of contemplation? And so, being too indolent to pray, not well enough trained for contemplation, and exposed to the risk of being distracted by idle desires, we can best compensate for all these deficiencies by zealously copying books which will serve the edification of many. (p. 55)

Now you may say: “I cannot write, I cannot sit all day long in my cell. I would rather work outside; I shall by no means refuse to dig or to carry stones, be it only to escape confinement which is repugnant and odious to me.” My succinct answer: Your comparison is not valid because it hinders your progress. It is better to write than to dig, better to read sacred books than to carry stones—unless your duty to obedience and overpowering piety would interfere. You say you cannot write and do not want to remain in the solitude of your cell. Why then did you come to the monastery if you are not willing and ready to live as a monk? (p. 85)

“That monks should not stop copying because of the invention of printing”

This is not to say that Trithemius did not also marshall a rhetorical and practical defense of his belief that handwritten books were superior to printed ones. This comes across explicitly in Chapter 7, which is entitled, “That monks should not stop copying because of the invention of printing.” It is short enough to transcribe in its entirety:

Brothers, nobody should say or think: “What is the sense of bothering with copying by hand when the art of printing has brought to light so many important books; a huge library can be acquired inexpensively.” I tell you, the man who says this only tries to conceal his own laziness.

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.

Yes, many books are now available in print but no matter how many books will be printed, there will always be some left unprinted and worth copying. No one will be able to locate and buy all printed books. Even if all works ever written would appear in print, the devoted scribe should not relax in his zeal. On the contrary, he will guarantee permanence to useful printed books by copying them. Otherwise they would not last long. His labor will render mediocre books better, worthless ones more valuable, and perishable ones more lasting. The inspired scribe will always find something worth his trouble. He does not depend on the printer; he is free and as a scribe enjoys his freedom. He is by no means defeated by the printer; he must not cease copying just because the art of printing has been invented. He should pursue his path without looking back; he should be certain that in the eyes of God his reward will be no less, without regard to anyone else.

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. But we, beloved brothers, shall keep in mind the reward of this sacred occupation and not slacken in our efforts, even if we were to own many thousands of books. Printed books will never be the equivalent of handwritten codices, especially since printed books are often deficient in spelling and appearance. The simple reason is that copying by hand involves more diligence and industry. (pp. 63, 65)

His practical arguments include the limited or unproven durability of paper utilized by printers vis-à-vis parchment used by scribes. Also printed books, although less expensive to buy, are mass produced with considerably less editorial and manufacturing care. Sure, the selection of printed books may be temptingly broad. But how long will they last?

We hear echoes of these practical concerns expressed in today’s transition. There is (legitimate) uncertainty about the limited or unproven durability of electronic file formats. Can/should we entrust our books and scholarly works to bits spinning around in ‘the cloud’? Only time will tell. Too (though to me somewhat less legitimately), some scholars wonder if their colleagues (and tenure and promotion committees) will take their work seriously if not entrusted to the supposed care of a ‘truly’ professional publisher who will make their book or article look good with proofreading, copyediting and typesetting (even if the content is otherwise ‘mediocre’ [Was Trithemius only referring to poor book construction and not also content?]). I mean, who will pay attention to my article if I entrust it to some amateur open access publisher?  

At the same time, I read in some of Trithemius’s other pro-handwriting arguments a perspective that resonates with many contemporary thoughts that information, especially scholarly information, should be allowed to flow more freely. Notwithstanding an apparently deep catalog of titles provided by print houses, Trithemius complains that there are books of value that will remain unprinted (presumably because they will be deemed unprofitable by printers). Too, what becomes of knowledge when a book falls out of print, or is unavailable in a local market? To me, most compelling is his comment about the scribe who “does not depend on the printer,” but “is free and as a scribe enjoys his freedom.” Trithemius rallies around a fundamental value that as a lover of knowledge (whether sacred or secular! (p. 73)) he should retain freedom of access to knowledge—both to preserve it and to disseminate it in written form. Trithemius seems to suggest that ceding control of the production of books entirely to printers (even before the advent of copyright!) will constrain access to knowledge and result in a loss of scholarly independence. A scribe cannot be so constrained. He is set free through his ability (and divine calling) to copy. I sense an echo of this ancient scribal value of independence and freedom rebounding in the modern open access movement.

De laude scriptorium in print?

You may have noticed above that Dorothea Salo affixed the date of 1494 on her reference to De laude scriptorium, while I was working from a translation dated 1492. (Incidentally, Salo offers her own translation of excerpts from In Praise of Scribes, presumably from the 1494 edition, on her personal website.) What is going on here?

We know the original handwritten edition was produced in 1492 because it is accompanied by a letter of dedication dated October 8, 1492, addressed to a Father Gerlach of Breitbach, abbot of Deutz, of the Order of St. Benedict. After hearing of activities at Sponheim Abbey, Father Gerlach commissioned Trithemius to write a treatise on monastic scribal arts in order to “induce [the monks at Duetz] to give themselves to the art of copying.” (p. 29)

What is of particular interest is that less than two years later Trithemius himself engaged Peter von Friedberg in Mainz to publish a printed edition of De laude scriptorium. Given his spirited defense of handwritten copying, this decision would appear to be an open contradiction. But Klaus Arnold is surely correct when he writes:

Trithemius knew very well that a printed book was bound to reach a much larger audience than a manuscript. If his instructions in the art of copying were to be effective, he had to ensure the greatest possible circulation for them. (p. 15)

If there is any irony here it is only surface level. Arnold goes on to say the Trithemius chose well in selecting Friedberg as his printer.

The Peter von Friedberg incunabula … are, without exception, distinguished by carefully selected paper and their clear characters which correspond to the contemporary Gothic script. It may be presumed that Trithemius himself took active part in the preparation and production of Friedberg’s books. This seems to be indicated by the careful proportion between print and page, the impressive compactness of the type-set page and the meticulous proofreading of the texts; in all these respects the printed books correspond to the manuscripts prepared under Trithemius’ supervision. (p. 15)

And so, it is my assessment that Johannes Trithemius was no mere apologist for a has-been publishing technology, or a lucrative business on the verge of collapse (contra Salo). Recall that his concerns were primarily cultural—and spiritual. Yes, he clearly stood at a point of technological transition and a discomforting change was in the air. But only the most prejudiced scholar would spurn the advantages of new communication technologies that could enhance dissemination of and access to ideas—even if those ideas included a vigorous defense of the threatened culture, or resistance to the loss of fundamental communication freedoms. Further, prejudice would be compounded if he insisted on holding onto outdated information about this changing scene. Reputable purveyors of these new technologies can be found. They welcome the opportunity to learn from engagement with scholarly colleagues, and not just view them as customers. Trithemius’s nuanced response provides us some useful guidance as we stand at our own technological transition point between analog and digital—or between the tried and true but enclosed models of scholarly communication and the opportunities afforded by new models of open access.

Unless humility and love of Scripture join hands neither will the studies of monks serve the purpose of the Order nor will the monks themselves advance in knowledge and learning. Love of Scripture without humility destroys the good order of monastic discipline, and humility without love of Scripture will never suffice for the knowledge of God’s word. Both must be embraced unreservedly if we want to become scholars in the monastery. (p. 105)

Posted in Book History, Book Technology, Book/Article Review, Libraries & OA, Open Access, Publishing Technology
7 comments on “Standing at a point of transition: Johannes Trithemius, In Praise of Scribes
  1. Karl Stutzman says:

    Interesting post, Gary. I enjoyed the parallels between these technological transitions – and the wise advice we might take from Trithemius. Perhaps we should consider encouraging our students to copy important texts by hand to ensure personal digital preservation! More seriously, I think this is a clear message that technology should not be an excuse for lazy scholarship: an important thing to keep in mind as we move toward open access. Librarians need to urge emerging open access publications to maintain high scholarly standards and production values (and be willing to put in the time and effort to help them pull it off).

  2. Dorothea says:

    Thanks for this! It’s very kind.

    As for good old Trithemius, whom I love with a great love, I think it might be forgivable for reading between the lines a bit. No print publisher or librarian these days actually says outright that they fear disintermediation or loss of business, but that hardly means those fears don’t underlie what they DO say! It’s also pretty painfully clear, as you elucidate, that Trithemius fears the printing press threatens an important monastic way of life. This needs a little unpacking: why couldn’t the monks just go right on scribing away, ignoring the movable-type monster for the greater glory of God?

    The obvious answer to me is that continuing to copy wouldn’t be economically practical if the scriptorium market dried up; monasteries don’t fund themselves (or, at least, didn’t in Trithemius’s day; I don’t mean to imply it’s impossible), so monks have to bring in the ducats somehow. Trithemius gets at this when he says he doesn’t want monks doing hard labor in farm fields. The comparison with journal publishers screaming “open access means all the jobs will go away!” or librarians moaning “but who will love us if we don’t build collections?” is left as an exercise for the reader.

    The date confusion is entirely mine, and I apologize for it. I first read Trithemius in exactly the same translation you did, and it was originally the one I cited. However, “Trithemius (1974)” just looked weird, so the editor asked me to change it, and in my haste I didn’t do all the filiation work I should have!

    • Gary F. Daught says:

      Thanks for your comment Dorothea. Again, I absolutely loved your article. You are no doubt correct to infer that, as abbot, Trithemius would harbor unexpressed anxieties about the future viability of the monastery without a reliable/sustainable economic base. Thanks for the clarification on dating. But you are not in error. The Peter von Friedberg Mainz printed edition of De laude scriptorium which you cite is dated 1494. It was delightful to be able to unpack the apparent irony that Trithemius would go to a printer while his handwritten Sponheim 1492 edition would seem to better make his case without contradiction.

  3. […] advice in “How to Scuttle a Scholarly Communication Initiative” (that I referenced in my last post), and it falls in the same vein of several of my previous posts (such as here and here) covering […]

  4. Gary F. Daught says:

    Notwithstanding Trithemius’s contention that being a scribal monk was a high calling, see this blog post passed to me by a colleague: “Oh, My Hand: Complaints Medieval Monks Scribbled in the Margins of Illuminated Manuscripts” .

  5. […] a curse. When the printing press first made possible the efficient reproduction of written works, Johannes Trithemius (a respected polymath) feared the damage that could be done when trained scribes…. And even the invention of writing had its naysayers, including Plato, one of the most respected […]

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