For a long time, this manuscript copying was done in monasteries, and the task was often given to the youngest monks, who had strong eyesight that allowed them to copy pages of text for hours in dim light. Many were barely teenagers, and yet they chose to devote themselves to God and to the propagation of knowledge. That's a big contrast to today. Hell, you can barely get college students to write an essay without plagiarizing half of it from an old textbook they found on the floor of the dorm restroom and that doesn't even cover the same subject, and all they have to do to write is hit buttons on a keyboard.
The Historical Awfulness
The margins of medieval manuscripts are scrawled with notes that anonymous scribes have left us, and these notes tell us that young people have stayed the same throughout history. In the notes, scribes complain about bad ink and poor tools, whine that "writing is excessive drudgery," and write about how much they wished they were drinking instead. At least young people today usually keep their complaints about college work to anonymous Tumblrs or whatever; these guys didn't even care that all of history would be able to see it.
I hope they at least checked the parchment's privacy settings.
Bitching about their companions was also big. One monk left us with an angry message about a shitty Bible translation he had to copy, while another scribe's writing starts with the words: "Cithruadh Magfindgaill wrote the above without chalk, without pumice, and with bad implements." Fucking Cithruadh, man, always messing shit up. I mean, have you ever met a nice person called Cithruadh? Me neither.
And speaking of religious vigor ...
Artists Regularly Blamed God for Their Mistakes
When I was growing up, we had a Persian carpet in our living room. I once asked my father about why the pattern changed in one corner of the rug, and he told me that the people who had woven the carpet had inserted the "mistake" deliberately. It would be wrong to make a perfect rug, he explained, "because only god is perfect." He then made the same excuse for that weird gray color the rug had after not having been vacuumed in a few years.
Don Joski/iStock/Getty Images
"You want me to clean up that place where the cat threw up on it? What is this,
the eternal realm of paradise?"
The same story is often repeated about all kinds of Islamic artwork, as well as about traditional Amish art: artists were said to leave "humility squares," or deliberately mismatched patches on their quilts, to remind themselves that perfection belongs only to the divine. Presumably the only perfect quilt was the quilt Adam had on his bed in the Garden of Eden, and it would just be wrong to try to imitate that quilt. That quilt was probably sewed with unicorn hair and it turned you invisible when you wanted it to.
The Historical Awfulness
Deliberate imperfections are a charming story, but those mistakes you see on Persian rugs and old quilts? They're probably just mistakes. One woman who actually researched the story about Amish humility squares found that Amish people reacted in horror when she brought it up: to them, adding deliberate mistakes seemed like an act of extreme egotism, implying that the only reason you weren't like God was because you chose not to be. The idea of deliberate imperfections in Islamic art is disputed as well, especially since it's easy to find oodles of Islamic art without any evidence of deliberate imperfections at all.
"It looks nice and all, but have you considered getting a cat to throw up on it?"
Nope, a far more likely explanation is that the artists who made these quilts and rugs and tiles were like us: they made mistakes, not because they were feeling super religious but because they were tired or distracted by a squirrel or just really sick of making quilts that day.
So why did these rumors about folk-art mistakes start? Think about it: you're a craftsman showing off his tile work to the rich guy who commissioned it, and he points out that you put in a tile upside down in one spot, and the gorgeous calligraphy near the ceiling now reads GROD IS GREAT. What better way to deal with it than to insist that you were just being really, really pious? The rich guy doesn't want to seem like he's out of touch with your down-to-Earth spirituality, so he accepts that explanation. Soon, he's boasting to his friends that the mistake on that wall is all due to one man's mighty devotion to Grod.
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