Petrarch on Copying Books

“Your Cicero has been in my possession four years and more.  There is a good reason, though, for so long a delay; namely, the scarcity of copyists who understand such work. It is a state of affairs that has resulted in an incredible loss to scholarship.  Books that by their nature are a little hard to understand are no longer multiplied, and have ceased to be generally intelligible, and so have sunk into utter neglect, and in the end have perished. This age of ours consequently has let fall, bit by bit, some of the richest and sweetest fruits that the tree of knowledge has yielded; has thrown away the results of the vigils and labours [sic] of the most illustrious men of genius, things of more value, I am almost tempted to say, than anything else in the whole world….” Petrarch, “To Lapo de Castiglionchio, 1355,” in  The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be An Educated Human Being, ed. Richard M. Gamble. Wilmington 2007, p. 304.

In this letter Petrarch explained to his friend, Lapo da Castiglionchio, why he had not returned the copy of Cicero’s writing(s) to his friend for many years.  Petrarch lived before movable type printing existed in Europe.  This meant that books had to be copied by hand in order to make a new manuscript of the original text.

Petrarch lamented his ability to read while he copied the text.  He wrote to Lapo da Castiglionchio: “So the pen held back the eye, and the eye drove on the pen, and I covered page after page, delighting in my task, and committing many and many a passage to memory as I wrote.  For just in proportion as the writing is slower than the reading does the passage make a deep impression and cling to the mind.” Ibid., p. 305.

Is this not the same method that medieval monks called lectio divina? Copying, reading, and memorization transform the one who performs this task.  However, Petrarch will demonstrate the classical foundations of this practice.  How fitting for the father of Renaissance humanism!

“And yet I must confess that I did finally reach a point in my copying where I was overcome by weariness; not mental, for how unlikely that would be where Cicero was concerned, but the sort of fatigue that springs from excessive manual labour [sic].  I began to feel doubtful about this plan that I was following, and to regret having undertaken a task for which I had not been trained; when suddenly I came across a place where Cicero tells how he himself copied the orations of—someone or other; just who it was I do not know , but certainly no Tullius, for there is but one such man, one such voice, one such mind.” Ibid., p. 305.

Copying a book was difficult physical work.  Reading and remembering the text exercises the intellect.  Petrarch realized that Cicero himself copied texts to study them more closely and to avoid idleness.  Filled with shame, Petrarch now understood the importance of copying significant texts to study them more closely.  This fact inspired him to continue the arduous physical task of copying the text and the mental effort associated with reading them.


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