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Re: orion-list writing systems, details (3 screens)

Hi, Al,

You are 100% correct that it is just as important to distinguish
between scribal activities as it is to differentiate between
textual and literary criticism. What we classify as a "scribe"
covers quite a range of activities... substantially more than
the distinction between "copyist" and, say, "secretary." What
scribes have in common is their basic training, something which
by its very nature is common to all time periods (before the
industrial revolution in the West) and all writing systems at
any period - after that - much depends upon the capabilities
of an individual.

One thing consistently forgotten is that we are referring neither
to a little mole of a clerk out of Dickens earning a shilling a
week, nor are we talking about a "poor little monk" working away
in some "cold and ill lit" scriptorium. We are talking about a
cadre of highly trained *literate* people at a time when only the
elite and the urbanites were literate. Employees, yes, menials, no.
Scribes were always supervised; they controlled words.

Perhaps all this may be made clearer by speaking in terms of modern

Scribal Basic training included:
Learn the symbol set (back at Sumer, roughly 720 graphs - today,
     27 symbols in Hebrew, 52 in English - 26 lower case, 26 caps
     plus italics, bold, etc.)
Learn the graphic representations of the symbol set as used by
     the training center - by the late antique period this could
     be 10 or more different scripts/fonts. (Today, usually 1
     graphic set is taught in the schools.)
Learn the correct hierarchy of scripts and fonts for the training
     center. (Today, pick and choose from among computer fonts...
     but be careful to use a serifed font for anything one wants
     taken seriously.)
Learn the punctuation system. (Much simplified today.)
Learn how to prepare the surface(s) to be used for writing (clay has
     to be dug up, pebbles and grit removed, then the clay must be
     moistened to the correct consistency, formed into the correct
     size(s), etc. Leather or parchment must me properly treated, etc.
     Papyrus stripped out, etc. Today, paper is manufactured by machinery.)
Learn how to make the writing instrument(s). (Today made by machinery.)
Learn how to calculate formats and margins. (By the 9th century CE,
     we start seeing scribal handbooks containing guides; machinery
     for marking guidelines en masse begins to appear. Today, computers
     do the work for us.)
Learn how to layout a tablet, scroll, leaf according to the correct
     format for the hierarchy of sizes and formats. (Today, we
     have specialists who do layout and paste-up.)

Once the basics have been mastered, a scribe could go on to master
advanced training - though some always remained copyists (apprentices
learn by copying <G>). The following are only some modern thoroughly
distinct equivalents of the jobs scribes held - and did.

Data entry clerk (a copyist); proofreader; notary public; dictaphone
typist; steno-typist (complete with a different symbol set); court
reporter; secretary; tax collector; tax assessor; cashier, admini-
strative assistant, certified public accountant, head clerk; confidential
assistant to a Governor or Ruler; and so on.

The more important the job, the less supervision; nevertheless, there
was always somebody around to check on the scribe. While modern Notary
Publics do not need to memorize the formulae, as ancient scribes did,
they must keep records of transactions; we have just such records from
Egypt on "notarial" transactions. Scribes very frequently were in a
position of great power. The scribe, for example, to the Governor of
Thebes received petitions - if someone wanted to see the Governor or
bring something to his attention, they had to write to the scribe.
None of the above jobs permit the scribe editorial initiative - and
a scribe would have to have a compelling reason to risk life, position,
and security by changing the auctorial words. (Think what happens when
Baruch, an author, acts as a scribe for Jeremiah - and is accused of
putting words in Jeremiah's mouth [which by the way, is meant quite

Weren't there independents? Sure. Scribes opened "bookshops," but
a literate public is necessary for a book-producer to earn a living.
Such bookshops appear in urban centers such as Rome... and later
disappear in the West until the 14th century CE. An advertisement for
a team of inscription-scribe plus stonecutter-scribe shows up from
Pompeii... and, of course, there are always calligraphers. Now the
independents did not have direct supervision, instead they had to
please the consumer. If the books were not what the customers ordered,
the bookshop went out of business; if the inscriptions did not please -
close up shop; if the calligraphed notice wasn't exactly what was
ordered - find another way to put food on the table.

So, while there are many distinctions among scribal occupations,
there are certain things that we can say with great confidence,
among these: scribes as a class of highly trained (and clothed,
housed, and well fed) people did not edit texts.

All the best,


Dr. Rochelle I. Altman, co-coordinator IOUDAIOS-L  risa@hol.gr

For private reply, e-mail to "Rochelle I. Altman" <risa@mail.hol.gr>
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