The Extinction of the Scribe

Laura Heggs | January 19th, 2017

Hundreds of years ago in 15th century Europe, professions looked very different than they do today.  One such profession was known as a scribe – a person who was responsible to read, translate and write (by hand) valuable information from other documents. The ability to read and write is commonplace now, but back in the 1400s it was a skill that was rare among the population. As a profession, the scribe was responsible for reading and translating fragile and decaying documents filled with wisdom from the past to share with the current generation. The role of the scribe was irreplaceable and only a small group of people held the revered title and skills to be one.

Wikimedia
Wikimedia

And then, in the mid 1400s, a change occurred. A German blacksmith and inventor name Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. The machine allowed people to mechanically type instead of writing by hand, making the entire process more efficient. Suddenly, writing was not just reserved to those who had specific training. A printing press allowed people to produce their writing, and spread information more rapidly thane ever before. The new technology was revolutionizing how people acquired and shared information, and this meant big changes to the function of a traditional scribe.

By the end of the 1400s, with the printing press well established, scribes were no longer the gatekeepers of the written word. The invention of the printing press allowed information to be shared faster and travel further, rendering the role of the scribe profession as functionally obsolete. In defense of the traditional scribe profession, Johannes Trithemius, the Abbot of Sponheim, wrote De Laude Scriptorum (which translates to “in praise of scribes”). Trithemius focused his work on highlighting the virtues and values of the scribe traditions, lauding their importance and value for the profession and larger society.

And how did he get the word out about his work? By ironically using a printing press, of course! By the end of the 1400s, the scribe profession was extinct.

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