The Scribal Desk
During the class hour students took turns writing at a scribal desk. The desk was constructed by my father, Wendell Richardson, from old kitchen cabinetry he was going to discard. I sent him the famous image of Jean Miélot working at his scribal desk (by Jan Tavernier, from “Miracles de Notre Dame,” c. 1456, Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris, fr. 9198f. 19; reproduced in de Hamel p. 36, plate 28.), and he crafted a reasonable facsimile of Miélot’s desk. Students were able to experience the strange kinetics involved in writing on a fairly steep slope—so steep that, according to de Hamel, “one can sometimes see on the page of medieval manuscripts that the concentration of ink is in the lower edges of the letters as it has settled down the slope of the desk” (37). Indeed, writing at a scribal desk is more like painting the letters on a page than writing in a conventional sense and is considerably more taxing. This experience helps the student appreciate the lament of Thomas Hoccleve, Chaucer’s contemporary, who wrote about the physical pain endured by government scribes at the Privy Seal office--scribes who must “stowpe and stare vp-on þe sheepes skyn” all day.