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Basic Information

Before the invention of the printing press, all books had to be written by hand. Scribes (aka Scriveners) were professionals who copied books, letters, manuscripts, and government records. Depending on the era and culture they were in, they may have additional duties of that are literary, accountant, civil servant, or even religious nature. In many societies, the Scribal profession was an upper-class one, which makes sense that by definition it's a job that requires a not insignificant amount of education. Though the profession is almost extinguished in the modern day, areas with low literacy rates will see local specialists who will read and write for the general public for a fee.

  • In Ancient Egypt scribes (called sesh) were the multilingual social elite, exempt from corvee taxes and military service. They were expected to be able to write in hieroglyphics, hieratic and demotic script. The job of sesh (scribe) was an inherited political position. They would collect taxes, conduct the census, track the water levels of the Nile, and survey construction sites.
  • In Babylon, scribes (called dubsar) were expected to be fluent in Akkadian and Sumerian cuneiform and capable of using either ink or clay tablet. They were also needed skill at mathematics, as scribes had an important role in commerce and business contracts.
  • In Ancient Israel the scribes (called sofer) were tasked with exacting rules and standards because the things they were writing generally contained the holy word of God. To destroy a document with God's Word written on it was criminal.
  • In Ancient Rome by contrast, scrivening was often a job for (relatively priviledged) slaves - in some cases copying out books by dictation in large groups, acting as a sort of human printing press. Rich men would often retain their own scribes - who could equally well be priviledged slaves1, family freedmen or lower status citizens, and this job tended to drift into that of the private secretary. Public scribing for hire was more often a freedman's job, but could also be a semi-respectable job for an impoverished citizen.
  • During the Middle Ages monks were often also scribes and/or illuminators. They would labor within a Scriptorium inside the Monastery, creating bestiaries and books of hagiography. This, incidentally, is why the English words for an administrative functionary and his work (clerk and clerical) are so closely related to those for a priest and his office (cleric and clergy) - for a large part of the middle ages the Roman Church was a bulwark of literacy.
  • The British Army of India had scribes on its strength until the time of its abolition, providing literacy support to the sepoys for whom literacy was not expected. This courtesy was not extended to soldiers of the British Army proper, despite literacy levels in their recruiting pools being far from universal.
  • A similar status occasionally accrues with prisons - most nations prison populations have below average rates of literacy and better educated prisoners can do a great deal for their status and safety by assisting their fellow inmates with letters to family and other correspondants.

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Game and Story Use

  • A scribe would make an interesting and unexpected villain. He's not likely to be much in combat, but could cause no end of legal hassles and other trouble for the players, engaging in forgery and other shenanigans. In a society where scribes have special status or civil powers, there may be heavy consequences if the PCs defy (or kill) the scribe.
    • If the villainous scribe is the personal amanuensis of a powerful politician or noble, those consequences for acting against the villain may not just be legal in nature, but also involve a personal vendetta from the villain's employer (who is presumably, unwilling to believe the PCs when they swear the scribe is a secret big bad evil guy.
      • "My personal amanuensis could not possibly be the evil mastermind. He's far too busy transcribing my witticisms to have time to run a brotherhood of assassins!"
  • The PCs work out a contract, deal, or truce, and wish to seal it in a legally-binding fashion. It's off to the local scribes' office to get a chirograph, the medieval equivalent of notarization.
  • The real villain bribes a scribe to "misplace" a deed, letter of marque, or other important document.
  • If the PCs are investigating a mystery, the local scribes may have clues or be able to aid in the research.
  • In The Name Of The Rose has several ideas worth stealing in regards to corrupt scribes, banned books, and poisoned ink.
  • A retired adventurer Priest might take up a job as a scribe… until some new quest or danger draws them out of retirement.
  • A lazy scribe takes shortcuts or makes mistakes in a spellbook or religious text, or inadvertently creates a palimpsest on a spell scroll. As a result the book is now a cursed item and leaving a trail of destruction in its' path.
  • In a game with elaborate and complex (or Vancian) magic, a wizard may need to hire one or more scribes to help them acquire and organize their spells.
  • In a more realistic medieval campaign where some or all of the PCs have limited or non-existant literacy they may need to hire a scribe to handle written documents for them.
  • Even for entirely literate characters, the difference between their writing and that of a professional scribe may be significant, especially given pre-modern writing implements (GAL6:11 "see what large letters I use as I write to you in my own hand" - Paul was a highly educated man, but still not capable of the small, neat script that the scribe Tertius had been using previously).
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