Toward Text-Mining the Middle Ages: Digital Scriptoria and Networks of Labor

Published in Digital Medieval Literature and Culture, 2017


A scribe sits at his desk in an uncomfortable chair, laboring over his vellum with pen and ink, squinting in the fading light, and scrawling complaints in the margins about the work conditions. Possibly, his superior chose the text his is copying and the words bear little or no interest to the scribe. Focused, instead, on completing as much of the difficult and tedious task while the light remains, this scribe’s efforts are a vital, unavoidable part of the knowledge economy of the medieval period. Eltjo Buringh estimates that in the fifteenth century alone, more than four million manuscript books were produced in the Latin West through a combination of the labor in monasteries and universities, and by lay scribes. The number of long hours to produce so many manuscripts must have been remarkable. Before the efficiencies of movable type fully replaced the production of manuscripts, the Latin West clearly valued such labor.

Widner, Michael. “Toward Text-Mining the Middle Ages: Digital Scriptoria and Networks of Labor,” in The Routledge Research Companion to Digital Medieval Literature and Culture. Ed. Jen Boyle and Helen J. Burgiss. Routledge Press.