Twilight of the Scribes
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Categories: Ancient, Modern

Twilight of the Scribes

The BBC has a short piece on the vanishing of professional letter-writers in India (link). A generation ago, someone who wanted a letter written or a package addressed could hire someone to do that for them outside most post offices in big cities. In the author’s view, rising literacy rates make letter-writers less necessary, but the final blow has been the availability of cheap cell phones which let people communicate across long distances without writing.

What the article does not say is that people have been making a living writing letters and simple documents for about four thousand years. In the cosmopolitan world of the Late Bronze Age, Egyptian villagers had the local scribe write them letters and contracts. Soldiers on the island of Elephantine sent short notes to and from their friends and relations on the mainland. Of the several hundred which survive from the Achaemenid period, many are written in a single hand yet under many different names. High medieval teachers wrote textbooks on formal letter-writing. While many men in some societies could read, the skills to write neatly and to compose an elegant letter or official document tended to be rare, so many people in a wide range of societies preferred to find a professional. After such a long time, it would be sad if the trade ends not with universal literacy but with the triumph of the spoken word.

Further reading: J.M. Lindeberger, Ancient Aramaic and Hebrew Letters (1994), Jac J. Janssen, “Commodity Prices From the Ramesside Period.” E.J. Brill: Leiden, Netherlands, 1975, James J. Murphy, Three Medieval Rhetorical Arts (1971)

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