Friday, September 09, 2005

Girls Trained in Beautiful Writing?: Female Scribes in Roman Antiquity and Early Christianity


I have been reading the novel "Course of Honor" by Lindsey Davis about the relationship between Vespasian and a female scribe named Caenis. I was curious about this woman so I did some research and found this interesting article about the existence of female scribes (both slave and freewomen) and Caenis in particular:

"That female scribes appear in urban contexts in the service of
upper-class women is supported by two?and, so far as I have been able
to determine, the only two?literary references to female scribes. First,
according to Suetonius? account of Vespasian, when Vespasian?s wife
(Flavia Domitilla) died, ?he resumed his relations with Caenis, freedwoman
and amanuensis of Antonia [Antoniae libertam et a manu], and
formerly his mistress.?30

This anecdotal description of Caenis fits well
with the information from our Latin inscriptions: a freedwoman who
was employed as an amanuensis by another woman.

The second literary reference requires more careful analysis. In his
well-known Book Six of the Satires, Juvenal catalogues with characteristic
ruthless mockery the ways of wives. In the following passage he
satirizes the well-to-do lady who idles away her days unjustly punishing
her slaves if her husband rejects her sexual advances:
If the husband has turned his back upon his wife at night, the libraria is
done for. The slaves who dress their mistresses will be stripped of their
tunics; the Liburnian will be accused of coming late, and will have to pay
for another man?s [i.e., the husband?s] drowsiness; one will have a rod
broken over his back, another will be bleeding from a strap, a third from
the cat; some women engage their executioners by the year. While the
flogging goes on, the lady will be daubing her face, or listening to her
lady-friends, or inspecting the widths of a gold-embroidered robe. While
thus flogging and flogging, she reads the lengthy Gazette, written right
across the page, till at last, the floggers being exhausted, and the inquisition
ended, she thunders out a gruff ?Be off with you!?31

30. Vesp. 3.
31. Satires 6.475?85.

Crucial for my purposes is the very beginning of the passage where
Juvenal indicates that the lady?s libraria will suffer her mistress? temper.
Scholars have been loath to translate this term as ?clerk,? or ?scribe,? or,
even less, ?copyist,? and have rather argued that here the term libraria is
essentially the same as lanipendia, the slave who was responsible for
weighing and doling out the wool to the slave wool workers. The
scholarly reluctance appears to derive from the ancient Scholia gloss in
which the term libraria is replaced with lanipendia.32 Furthermore,
scholars have argued that the context supports this interpretation. And
finally, some have pointed to etymological reasons for the gloss: it is
possible that libraria derives not from the root liber, meaning book, but
from libra, a unit of weight, and hence leads to the interpretation of ?one
who weighs out the wool? (i.e., the lanipendia).33

Each of these arguments, however, is problematic: ancient scholia
must be assessed on an individual basis, since it is just as possible that an
ancient scribe or copyist has mistakenly?intentionally or unintentionally?
glossed a word, as that he (or she) has preserved a good reading.
Furthermore, there is nothing in the context that inherently suggests one
interpretation over against another: we know that libraria were among
the personal servants of wealthy women, and this passage appears
essentially to produce a list of various slaves. And finally, most problematic
in my opinion, is that if libraria means lanipendia in this passage, it
would represent the sole instance in all of Latin literature where this
interchange is made.34 Essentially there are no controls on such a

32. The LCL translates libraria here as wool maid. According to E. Courtney?s
commentary on the Satires, S?which represents the ancient Scholia preserved in P
(the main manuscript used for the LCL text)?understood the use of libraria as the
equivalent of lanipendia (?who weighs out the pensum to the female slaves?):
E.Ê Courtney, A Commentary on the Satires of Juvenal (London: Athlone Press, 1980),
324. John Ferguson likewise adopts the lanipendia interpretation, but admits the this
interchange occurs nowhere else: ?libraria . . . the servant who weighs out the wool
for the workers, only here in literature, elsewhere called lanipendia? (John Ferguson,
Juvenal: The Satires [New York: St. Martin?s Press, 1979], 206). The OLD does not
suggest such an interchange of terms.

33. R. F. Rossi offers a useful discussion of the Juvenal passage, but he is
overconfident in his explanation of libraria as meaning lanipendia (?Librarius,?
Dizionario epigrafico di antichita romane, 4 [Rome, 1958]: 956). Part of his
argument depends on a lack of evidence for female copyists, a point that I am
contesting in this essay: ?Bisogna anche aggiungere che sembra meno sicuramente
demonstrata l?esistenze di donne copiste o scrivane designate col termine libraria?
(956).

34. John Ferguson admits this point: Juvenal, 206.
HAINES-EITZEN/GIRLS TRAINED IN BEAUTIFUL WRITING 639
replacement, and therefore I would argue that Juvenal also attests to
female slaves who were trained as clerks, secretaries, or copyists, and
were in the service of female masters.
To the inscriptions and literary references we can add one final piece of
Roman-period evidence for female scribes: an early-second-century
marble relief from Rome that preserves an illustration of a female record
keeper or clerk. The woman is seated on a high-backed chair and
appears to be writing on some kind of a tablet; she faces the butcher who
is chopping meat at a table.35 It strikes me as particularly interesting that
among the few Roman-period visual illustrations of scribes or clerks, one
depicts a woman.36 Furthermore, it suggests that the employment of
female scribes was not exclusively restricted to female employers, for
here we have a vivid portrait of a female scribe working for a male
butcher. It may well be, as some have suggested, that librariae could do
?freelance? work beyond the household in which they were primarily
employed.37

That some women, or girls, of slave and lower-class status were
trained as clerks, secretaries, and shorthand writers seems clear from the
evidence I have just discussed. These women must have had a certain
degree of literacy and training, which they probably received by
apprenticeship and/or training with a tutor in the household in which
they worked." - KIM HAINES-EITZEN
Post a Comment