Medieval Writing
Scribal Errors and Corrections
Contrary to some popular belief, scribes did make mistakes. Unfortunately, they did not have a delete key, liquid paper, or even a very effective eraser to remove ink which actually bit into the page. Nevertheless, vellum being the expensive stuff it was, pages with mistakes on them were not discarded, and various means of making corrections were utilised, some of which left the evidence of the scribe's mistake on the page for eternity. The most discreet way to correct an error, if it was possible, was to scrape away the offending words from the surface of the parchment with the small knife which was part of the scribe's essential equipment. It was then possible to write over the top.
Fulda cartulary
Segment from a cartulary of Fulda of 828 (Marburg, Staatsarchiv, Fuldaer Cartular, f.52). (From Steffens 1929)
Although this is often hard to see on photographs, faint images of partially scraped away writing can be seen on the example above. In the example below, the replacement letter m would not fit into the space allowed by the erasure so that it has been entered in superscript to form the word omnibus.
erasure Two words from an 11th century Martyrology of Odo, bishop of Vienne (Avignon, Musée Calvet, Ms 98). (From The New Palaeographical Society 1905)
In later manuscripts the rubricator sometimes also acted as a corrector. In the example below the scribe has started to write the word one ahead of where he is supposed to be, has left the error and written the correct word, then continued on. The mistake has simply been crossed out with an inelegant streak of red ink.
crossing out Music manuscript with error crossed out in rubric, from a private collection.
The quick and dirty way to do a simple correction could be to simply over write a letter, as in the example below where the scribe has written confractiones, then corrected it to confractionis.
overwriting A microfragment from the 8th century Codex Andegavensis (Cologne, Cathedral Library, MS XCI, f.91b). (From The New Palaeographical Society 1905)
If a whole word was written incorrectly, there were various solutions, all rather awkward. If space allowed, a word could simply be crossed out and a correction written over the top, as in the example below.
crossing out Segment from a 12th century Spanish Mozarabic breviary (British Library, add. ms. 30849, f.102v), by permission of the British Library.
Sometimes the offending word was not actually crossed out, but a line of dots was entered either above or below the whole word or the incorrect letters. The correction could be entered above the word, or in the margin, or, if the scribe became aware of the mistake as he was writing, next to it on the line.
dotting below dotting above
At left, a few words from a 7th century chronicle (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Lat. 1090, f.148). (From The New Palaeographical Society 1910) At right, a grab from an 8th century work of epistles and homilies (Bibliothèque d'Épinal, MS. 68, f.55b). (From The New Palaeographical Society 1911)
In the example at left the word citra has been changed into circa by placing the dots under the incorrect letters. In the one at right the word paschae has been altered to paucis by putting the dots above the mistake. The second example is a bit hard to make out properly, and it is in a fairly horrible Merovingian minuscule in which the letters all look rather strange.
Missing letters could simply be interpolated in superscript. In the example below, words have been corrected to read cornelio and crediderunt.
At left, one word from an 8th century copy of the Epistles of St Cyprian (Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS. Lat. 15, f.48b). (From The New Paleographical Society 1909) At right, a word from an early 8th century gospel (Bodleian Library, MS 857 (Auct. D.Z.14), f.145). (From The New Paleographical Society 1910)
Whole words could be interpolated if necessary.
A few lines from some verses of Bede on the Day of Judgement (British Library, Cotton Domitianus 1, f.54), by permission of the British Library.
With a manuscript like that illustrated above, it can be difficult to separate corrections made by the original scribe from the multiple annotations, glosses and corrections by later scribes. However, if the examples shown so far suggest that these visible corrections are mostly to be found in messy working manuscripts from ancient semi-literate scribes of the dark ages, it is not so.
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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last updated 12/6/2005.