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August 2019 News

Silence in the scriptorium!

Absolute silence in a monastery's scriptorium was an iron-clad rule.  Scribes were not allowed to choose the particular books that they copied and could not break the silence  by requesting particular codices from the librarian.  An elaborate gestural language was invented in order to facilitate such requests.
To request a Psalter, the scribe made the general sign for a book - extending his hands and turning over imaginary pages - and then put his hands on his head in the shape of a crown, the specific sign for the psalms of King David. 
If he was asking for a pagan book, he began, after making the sign for a book, to scratch behind his ear, like a dog scratching his fleas.
And if he wished to have what the Church regarded as a particularly offensive or dangerous pagan book, he could put two fingers into his mouth as if he were gagging.
Adapted from "The Swerve" by Stephen Greenblatt.

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