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Johannes Trithemius Against Gutenberg: Monday Reading Weblogging

Trithemius: In Praise of Scribes:

Before writing a sermon in praise of scribes, we call for the help of Him who promised the clarity of eternal life as a reward to the sincere scribe. Indeed:

And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.

This is to be understood as referring not only to those who create new things with their talents, but also to those who transcribe the old, as we will show by God's grace in what follows.

However useful the tradition of the learned, without the attention of the scribe it would never come to the notice of posterity. However well we behave, however fruitfully we teach, all that would be lost to oblivion if the work of the scribe did not record them in letters. It is therefore scribes who lend strength to words, memory to things, vigor to time. If they were taken from the Church, faith would weaken, charity would freeze, hope would die, law would perish, Scripture fall into oblivion. Finally, if writing was lost, the people would disperse, religious devotion would be extinguished, and the peace of Catholic unity would be a roil of confusion. Without scribes, writing would not long persist safely, but would be shattered by chance and corrupted by age.

The printed book is a thing of paper and in a short time will decay entirely. But the scribe commending letters to parchment extends his own and the letters' lifespan for ages. And he enriches the Church, conserves the faith, destroys heresies, repels vice, teaches morals and helps grow virtue. The devoted scribe, whom we intend to describe, praises God, pleases the angels, strengthens the just, corrects the sinner, commends the humble, protects the good, defeats the proud, and condemns the stubborn. The scribe, distinguished by piety, is the herald of God, because he announces His will to present and future peoples, promising eternal life to the good, pardon to the penitent, penalty to the negligent, and damnation to the contemptible. What is healthier than this art, what is more commendable than this piety which delights God, which the angels praise, which is venerated by the citizens of heaven? It is this piety that creates the weapons of the faithful against the heretics, which casts out the proud, which saps the strength of demons and which sets the norms of Christian life. It is this that teaches the ignorant, supports the timid, helps the devout, and joins the peaceful in love…


Brothers, no one should think or say "Why do I have to wear myself out writing by hand, when the art of printing has brought so many books to light, so that we can cheaply put together a great library?" Truly, whoever says this is trying to conceal his own sloth.

Who doesn't know how great is the distance between a scribed and a printed book? The scripture on parchment can persist a thousand years, but on paper, how long will it last? It's a great thing if a paper volume lasts two hundred years; but many are those who judge that their own texts ought to be printed. Posterity will judge this question.

Even though many books are now printed, no matter how many will be printed, you will find some that are not printed and will always need to be scribed. Not easily will one be able to find and buy all printed books. Even if all the books in all the world were printed, the devoted scribe should not desist in his work, because even printed books can be usefully perpetuated by scribing them, without which they would not endure long. Doing this will give limp books fixity, value to those of small price, longevity to the short-lived. The devoted scribe will always find books that merit his office. He need not fear harm from the printer. He is free, and his freedom makes his work a pleasure. He is in no way inferior to the printer, nor should he leave off his work because of printing. He should go forth on his own path without looking back, knowing that his crown from God will not be diminished, whatever the importunities of others.

He who ceases the work of a scribe because of printing is not a true friend of Scripture, because heeding no more than the present he takes no care to educate posterity. But we, dearest brothers, heeding the reward of this sacred labor we will not cease our work, even if we have many thousands of printed volumes. Printed books will never equal scribed books, especially because the spelling and ornamentation of some printed books is often neglected. Copying requires greater diligence…

Translation copyright 2010 by Dorothea Salo. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.