More being than having

Cristian Ispir
2 min readDec 8, 2023


An illuminated sheet from an 8th century manuscript from the monastery of St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1395, f. 426r.

An ancient and medieval manuscript is so much more than a book written by hand, so much more than a volume copied by a scribe or several, so much more than hundreds of hours sacrificed.

It is a work of love. A work of artisanship. And for most who produced them, it was a way of life.

I’ve always wondered about the kind of commitment and mindfulness involved in writing a whole codex by hand, the result of which could easily be undone in a matter of minutes; about the kind of cure against absurdity which insulates one from a sense that it is all for nothing, that time, violence, fire, water, or a thousand other reasons, can bring it all to nothing.

Our attention-deficient age cannot comprehend such matters, no matter how many books are written on the topic. My mind struggles to understand how a culture can be built, and thrive, on a kind of resilience of mind in face of utmost adversity, at scale and beyond price.

And that is because, I think, the community of scribes as those who produced the books of the ancient and medieval periods did not see themselves as having the books, but as being the books they wrote. They didn’t possess the savoir-faire, they embodied it. And they were aware of this mode of being.

It is with the end of the scribal culture and the advent of print that the West moves from the being the books to having the books, the mechanised production of printed volumes which, at the risk of sounding Marxist, begins to alienate those involved in the process. And in the end, all we are left with is the process, the specialist and the expertise.