The Cambridge Fish Scribe

Although few medieval scribes signed their work, there are exceptions in Peterhouse manuscripts. One man entered his name three times in a collection of commentaries on Aristotle: ‘written by me Tydeman of the Kingdom of Sweden, the Province of Närke, at the University of Cambridge, Kingdom of England, in the year 1450’ ( MS 188). Another man who produced a number of manuscripts for Peterhouse between 1418 and 1440 would be anonymous except for a fish. He did not provide his name, but he consistently ‘signed’ his work by drawing a fish around the catchword(s) written on the last folio of each quire (gathering of folios).

Fish 'signature', MS 114, f. 8v

Fish ‘signature’, MS 114, f. 8v

The catchword inside the fish is the first word on the next page, in this case, the completion of a proper name, Ami-nadab.

Catchword as first word on next page, MS 114, f. 9

Catchword as first word on next page, MS 114, f. 9

The fish was first drawn in the same ink as the catchword and later overlaid with red. Sometimes yellow as in this example at the end of quire 28 (written in pencil as the left). The fish tail is now lost in the gutter as a result of a rebinding project in the eighteenth century.

Fish 'signature' in yellow ink, MS 113, f. 24v

Fish ‘signature’ in yellow ink, MS 113, f. 24v

The Peterhouse fish have been identified as pike, probably because the body is commonly elongated, but there is no sign of the characteristic three tail fins of the common British freshwater fish (Esox lucius). Furthermore, in early manuscripts the fish is sometimes rectangular with a tail fin ranging from impressionistic to a knot. The Fish Scribe’s interest, of course, was less in naturalistic representation than visual word play. The fish has caught a plant leaf in its mouth, and in its belly is the word (or words) of the next folio (leaf), which enable the ‘catching’ of the next quire.

The Fish Scribe’s work is preserved in fifteen manuscripts, three at Pembroke, the rest at Peterhouse. He was the sole scribe of nine and a major contributor in the others, copying 31 of the 33 quires in MS 142, a collection of sermons by St Augustine of Hippo. For that manuscript the Fish Scribe earned 16 pence per quire. A quire (quaternus) was a set of four sheets of parchment folded to make eight leaves, from the modern point of view sixteen pages of copying. Each page had double columns usually ruled for 44 lines of text. We know what the Fish Scribe was paid because of the meticulous bookkeeping of William Dyngley, who served six terms as bursar at Peterhouse. Actively engaged in the production of books for a new library, he itemized the costs for parchment, writing, decoration, and binding at the end of eight manuscripts. The total cost for an anthology of works by St Ambrose, was 45 shillings, 3 pence (xlv s iii d).

William Dyngley’s itemized list, MS 114, f. 218v

William Dyngley’s itemized list, MS 114, f. 218v

For decoration (luminacione) the cost was usually 6 pence (vi d), for binding (ligacione) always 2 shillings (ii s). Parchment and writing were calculated by quire (pro quaterno). For MS 114 comprising twenty-seven quires, the parchment cost 6 shillings, 9 pence, the writing (scriptura) 36 shillings, the single greatest amount. For a twenty-nine quire manuscript, the Fish Scribe was paid 38 shillings, 8 pence (MS 193). Although it is difficult to calculate real prices, by way of comparison, in 1415-16 the college paid its chaplain 66 shillings, 8 pence for annual service. Depending on productivity, the Fish Scribe could have made a reasonable income. Two-thirds of his manuscripts were copied in a hand known as Anglicana formata, which could be written more rapidly than a more formal bookhand. Well formed, easy to read, Anglicana was an ideal medium for the new Peterhouse books.

Anglicana formata bookhand, MS 110, f. 206v

Anglicana formata bookhand, MS 110, f. 206v


Written by Ann Eljenholm Nichols


One comment

  1. Reblogged this on coastalpaths and commented:
    Signatures in manuscripts

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