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Clarkson Students Turn Back The Clock To The 13th Century With A Modern-day Scriptorium

Clarkson University Liberal Studies Professor Anne Mamary (MAY-mary) recently had students in her Great Ideas class partake in transcribing, the method by which books were reproduced until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Students used quill and ink to put their favorite quote or phrase onto paper in the same magnificent style of writing taken up by their predecessors centuries ago.

The idea came about as her students were reading works ranging from ancient Greek classics to the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer and Christine de Pizan.

All of Chaucer's work was copied by hand with quill pens and beautiful illuminations, said Mamary. "You dipped a goose-feather pen into the ink, and that's how you wrote the whole manuscript. There were people whose life's work was to copy books."

Often the transcribers were monks who did their work in a scriptorium, a room in the monastery where they toiled as scribes for eight hours a day in what Mamary called "a ritual and devotional act."

At the request of Mamary, students came to one class with their favorite quote or phrase of 50 words or less. The students would become modern-day scribes, with the classroom being their scriptorium.

When Professor Mamary said that we were going to do a scriptorium, said freshman Shanally Polanco (interdisciplinary engineering and management, New York, N.Y.), "I really thought that it would be a fun thing to do."

To understand where you are and where you're going, you have to understand where you came from. Mamary said she wanted to show her students how writing has changed from the pen, to the typewriter, to the computer.

And what better way to do that than to actually pick up the technology and see what it was like, she said.

The project was fun but frustrating, said freshman P.J. Dillon (computer science/computer engineering, Erie, PA.), who copied one of his own quotes. "I personally couldn't stop the ink from coming off the quill all at once. I got the hang of it, to a point, after awhile, but the writing still took a long time to complete. I can see why copying scrolls was so expensive, especially with all the artwork that was added to the text."

The most important lesson the students learned was not to take the communication advances of the 20th century for granted.

I learned that I'm lucky to have a computer, said Polanco. "If I were to live in the times when quills and ink were used, I would prefer to pay someone to do my work."

I hoped they'd learn not only to value the technology we now have, but to appreciate what we've lost through the adoption of that technology, Mamary said. "One loss is technical and artistic ability; another is the view that books are works of art, with their beautiful handwritten text and illumination. It's easy to think that new is better, but the students were able to see that an art has been lost."

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Annie Harrison, Director of Media Relations, at 315-268-6764 or]

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