Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Up-date on a left-handed scribe .... not

In the comments to an earlier post (found here), there was some discussion about whether it was possible to distinguish left-handed from right-handed scribes, both in terms of their writing styles and characteristic 'scribal habits'. It was also suggested that there were no left-handed scribes depicted in manuscript illustrations etc.

During the course of the discussion PJW came up with an image of a left-handed scribe, but the picture didn't seem to match the description (click for details).

So I emailed the museum:

In the description given of the Manuscript Illumination with the Evangelist Luke, late 13th-early 14th century
Tempera and gold leaf on parchment; 5 13/16 x 4 1/16 in. (14.7 x 10.3 cm). Purchase, The Jaharis Family Foundation Inc. Gift, 2001 (2001.633) (
it is said:
"On a single page from a gospel book, the illumination shows the evangelist Luke seated on a backless chair, reaching with his right arm toward the open book on a pedestal before him. He wears a loose-fitting blue tunic and white himation, and sandals on his feet. He holds a quill pen in his left hand as he pauses to contemplate the text."
But not only is there no pen to be seen in his left hand, it is not his right hand that reaches to the open book. It looks to me more like a pen in his right hand, held in such a way that he may be about to write. [Most scribes were right-handed, so it would be nice to know if this really was a depiction of a left-handed evangelist.]

I wonder whether it is possible either to refer me to some published discussion of this piece, or to have someone take another close look at the picture and confirm (or alter) the description.

And today I received this reply:

Dear Peter, if I may,

Thank you very much for your email. You are quite right that the evangelist Luke reaches for the book with his left hand, and that he is a right-handed scribe. We very much appreciate your bringing this to our attention and we will correct the descriptive text as soon as possible.

Best wishes for a happy holiday,



Dr. Sarah T. Brooks
Research Associate
Department of Medieval Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028-0198
Phone 212-650-2459
Fax 212-570-3866

So, if there were no left-handed scribes we shan't need to spend much time pondering their distinctive habits.

Up-date (to the up-date; 15.12.05): I am pleased to say that Dr Brooks has given permission for me to quote her email in full. I am sorry to say that I only asked for this permission retrospectively. At least we have advanced the cause of scholarship together.


  1. Do you have any idea how long I had to spend on Google before I found that?

  2. No. Remember Head's rule: your first internet instinct must be suspicion of any opinion or information provided.

    How long would it take?

    Get Google (0.34 secs)

    Click on Images (1.98 secs)

    Type in: left handed scribe (6.43 secs)

    Click search (3.81 secs)

    Check results (48 mins, 12.09 secs)

    Type comment into Blogger (2 mins 5.31 secs)

    Answer: less than one hour.

  3. It doesn't usually take me 3.81 secs to click on 'search'.

  4. OK, then since this is the only one you've disputed I conclude that the others are all completely accurate.

    For click search let's say "1.21 secs" then. Or should I come around with a (very accurate) stopwatch?

  5. How do you write with your right hand on papyrus with a quill and not smear the ink? In a lot of Chinese martial arts movies, they show people writing with both left and right hand.