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What is a Scribe?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A scribe is simply someone who writes, classically by hand. Given the long tradition which accompanies the written word, it should come as no surprise to learn that scribes have their own complex history. Scribes have recorded accounts and human history for thousands of years, in every language imaginable and using tools as varied as styluses and ballpoint pens. The work of scribes can be seen in museums around the world, along with depictions of scribes in action.

The word is derived from the Latin scribere, which means “to write.” Classically, scribes were paid to keep accounts, especially financial accounts. They also took notes on legal proceedings, and documented court decisions. In eras when the skill of writing and reading was not widespread, a scribe could help to connect a community, and to ensure that information was preserved in a way which could be accessed, even if only by a few.

Through the 15th century, the only way to record something in writing was by physically writing it. Scribes acted as secretaries, taking dictation, keeping records, and keeping track of ledgers. They also worked in marketplaces; people who could not read or write could approach a scribe, also called a scrivener, and dictate a letter which could be read to the recipient by another scrivener. The trade of writing for a living was quite profitable for many scribes, especially when they were expected to handle sensitive and confidential information such as legal documents.

In Jewish tradition, a scribe is a scholar and teacher. Sofers, Hebrew calligraphers, continue to produce handwritten Torahs and other Jewish ephemera today. Calligraphers also work on other holy texts like the Qu'ran and the Bible, although the days of monkish scribes hand writing Bibles are long gone. The term "scribe" s also sometimes used to refer more generally to people who write for a living; it is especially common to refer to journalists as “scribes,” referencing their scribbled notes taken in the field.

Thanks to a long tradition of record keeping with scribes, archaeologists and historians can learn a great deal about previous human societies. Early human communities in the Fertile Crescent, for example, conveniently left cuneiform tablets behind; although the contents of these tablets are not terribly interesting, they do paint a picture of the Mesopotamian system of trade. The Egyptians also famously kept scribes; alas, many of the papyrus scrolls they produced were burned as fuel to power early steam trains in Egypt, but some still survive.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By malmal — On Jun 15, 2011

@Valencia - You've got it absolutely right -- literacy was in fact used as a form of social control back before education was mainstream. In the medieval era, people who could read and write held considerable power over those who could not.

I didn't know about the Chinese language the women invented with Nushu -- that's very interesting!

My point about social control is perhaps most clearly illustrated by looking at the Hindu caste system during ancient times:

The highest caste, Brahmins, were allowed to read, scribe and teach the religious texts.

The next-highest, the Kshatriyas, could read and scribe the religious texts but not to teach them.

Vaishyas, the next caste down, were only allowed to study the texts, not to teach or write them.

Finally, the bottom rung, Shudras, were not allowed to study the texts at all -- no teaching them, learning to write them, or even learning to read them, because the Shudras' roles in society were to serve the other three castes.

I think it's fascinating how each caste's power and their access to literacy seemed to grow at the same time. Naturally, there were far more Shudras than Brahmins -- in fact, there were less Brahmins than any other caste, and that basically made them rulers by the power of their knowledge.

By Valencia — On Jun 14, 2011

Something related to this topic which I find interesting is the status that the first scribes in any culture have. Considering that many of the poorer people in a society were unable to read or write, those who could were automatically given respect and power.

The question is, were people actively excluded from learning these skills? When I studied linguistics I learned that historically it has always been the case that more people could speak a language than could write it.

Excluding certain groups from the world of literacy really means limiting their access to education and knowledge, which is useful in a society where there are clear class or gender divisions.

Some people respond by inventing their own written language, as Chinese women in early 20th century China did with Nushu. Similarly, the official Korean language of Hangeul was created in the 15th century, by a very forward thinking ruler who wished to create a literate nation. (Something which was difficult when so many couldn't understand the complex Chinese characters in use at the time.)

Although modern society may encourage all members to be able to read and write, those who cannot are still disadvantaged. In these circumstances, those who can write will retain the status of scribe. A good example is found in contemporary prisons, where the man or woman who can help others communicate with their loved ones is popular and respected.

By Bertie68 — On Jun 14, 2011

I was just thinking that many of our old folktales and stories that have survived until the present were handed down by oral tradition. They were kept alive because they were so entertaining and people kept retelling them.

When people traveled around, they would tell their version of the story. People from the area that was visited would change the story a little and insert some of their culture into the folktale. The same basic themes in folktales show up all over the world. Eventually someone would organize the tales and many were written down.

On the other hand, the information that ancient scribes wrote needed to be accurate and well expressed.

Since the scribes worked pretty independently on religious and historical subjects, I often wonder how much creative license they used in writing and commenting on religious/historical works.

I had never thought about scribes in ancient times being employed to write down trade records and legal recordings.

I wonder what the scribes were thinking while they were writing. Did they think that they were recording information that would help people in the future to understand their lives. Or, were they just doing a job that needed to be done now?

By oscar23 — On Jun 14, 2011

I am a medical transcriptionist and I consider myself to be a sort of scribe. Granted, I don’t write everything by hand (as the scribe definition seems to indicate should be the case) but I do put down a lot of information in the written word via the keyboard.

There are all kinds of scribes out there in the big old world, and they are all working away every day. Some are good scribes who do good work, and some are just in it for the nickels and dimes. Their work is often times shoddy (just go on the Internet and check out some of the ‘experts.’)

One thing is for sure, though. It is pretty awesome to live in a country where it is okay to be a scribe of anything at all that you want!

By mabeT — On Jun 14, 2011

I feel that the role that the scribe plays in any culture is hugely important and pretty well irreplaceable.

We look back on history, and it is pretty clear cut who the scribes were. Whether they were monks hidden in sanctuary or great thinkers or Egyptian scribes or even the apostles of Jesus Christ, they were all scribes and many of their works still exsist today.

A lot of these scribes have faced persecution and death for what they have done. I suppose that fact goes to show how important it is that knowledge and wisdom be passed down in the form of the written word.

It is kind of scary to wonder what of all of the mountains of information that we have circulating through our generation every day is going to one day be considered the history of our people. (By 'our people', I mean all of the people living on earth today.)

It would certainly be a shame that if in a few thousand years all that is left of all of our knowledge and our world is something like the Black Eyed Peas' “Humps” or some random e-book floating around on the web, wouldn’t it.

I do wonder though; who will the future generations of the world think of as our scribes.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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