from ancient scribes to the misery of literary writers

About four thousand years ago in the Mesopotamian Third Dynasty of Ur, kings established schools with rigid curricula and strict discipline to train young persons to be scribes. Writing thus developed as a practice serving rulers. Over time, highly intelligent scribes expanded their scope of activity and became influential not only in copying texts but also in shaping royal and religious law.[1] Writers have seldom made a living from creative literary work. Writers throughout history have primarily been rewarded materially for serving mundane needs of the powerful and wealthy, as well as praising them.

ancient Sumerian seal in which two goddesses lead man in worship of king

The scribal schools of the Third Dynasty of Ur were run like modern military boot camps. A scribal supervisor explained to a young scribe-student his path to success:

I just did whatever my mentor outlined for me — everything was always in its place. Only a fool would have deviated from his instructions. He guided my hand on the clay and kept me on the right path. He made me eloquent with words and gave me advice. He focused my eyes on the rules which guide a man with a task. Zeal is proper for a task. Time-wasting is taboo. Anyone who wastes time on his task is neglecting his task.

{ jic ma-an-hur-ra na-an-dim2 ki-bi-ce3 al-jar-jar
na de5-ga-ni-ta lu2 hu-ru-um cu bar dib-ba-e
im-ma cu-ju10 si ba-ni-in-sa2 us2 zid mu-un-dab5
ka-ju10 inim-ma jal2 ba-ni-in-taka4 ad gi4-gi4 ma-an-pad3
jic-hur lu2 a2 aj2-ja2 si sa2-e igi ma-ni-in-si-si
gu2 zi-zi-i ha-la a2 aj2-ja2-kam ud zal-le nij2-gig-ga
lu2 ki a2 aj2-ja2-ni-ce3 ud zal-la a2 aj2-ja2-ni ab-taka4 }[2]

Scribal-school students learned to follow instructions and defer to authority:

The man in charge of the courtyard, says: “You all enter,” and they will enter.
After he says: “You all sit,” they sit down.
If a tablet inspection is to be carried out,
the scribal-school pupil makes his saršuba exercise and his muguba exercise
available to him on the obverse of his tablet.

{ lu₂ kisal-la₂-ke₄ ku₄-ra-en-ze₂-en u₃-bi₂-du₁₁ ba-an-ku₄-ku₄-de₃-eš
dur₂-ru-ba-an-ze₂-en u₃-ba-e-du₁₁ ba-dur₂-ru-ne-ne
tukum-bi dub-e igi bi₂-ib₂-KARA₂.KARA₂
dumu e₂-dub-ba-a sar-šub-ba-ni u₃ mu-gub-ba-ni
igi dub-ba-na-ka an-na-ŋal₂ }[3]

A student explained that physical punishment enforced school rules:

I must not arrive late, otherwise my master would hit me!

“Here you have skipped a line,” he said, and he hit me.

The man enforcing rules said to me, “You! You looked into the street and your clothing is not fitted to your chest!” And he hit me.
The man maintaining silence said to me, “Why do you speak without my permission?” And he hit me.
The bird-feather man said to me, “Why don’t you stand up straight?” And he hit me.
The man in charge of the models said to me, “Why did you get up without my permission?” And he hit me.
The man in charge of the gate said to me, “Why did someone go out without my permission?” And he hit me.
The man in charge of the ceramic container said to me, “Why did you take clay without my permission?” And he hit me.
The man in charge of Sumerian said to me, “We spoke in Akkadian!” And he hit me.

{ u₄ na-ab-zal-e-en um-mi-a-ŋu₁₀ mu-un-duda-de₃-en

mu im-ta-ku₅-da-aš e-še in-duda-de₃-en

lu₂ ta₃-ta₃-ge-da-ke₄ sila-a igi-ni i-ni-in-bar tu₉ gaba-zu nu-ub-bu-us₂ e-še in-duda-de₃-en

lu₂ si tur-ke₄ a-na-še-am₃ ŋa₂-da nu-me-a ka ib₂-ba-e e-še in-duda-de₃-en
lu₂ pa mušen-na-ke₄ a-na-še-am₃ gu₂ zi nu-mu-e-zi e-še in-duda-de₃-en
lu₂ ŋeš-ḫur-ra-ke₄ a-na-še-am₃ ŋa₂-da nu-me-a i₃-zi-ge-en e-še in-duda-de₃-en
lu₂ ka₂-na-ke₄ a-na-še-am₃ ŋa₂-da nu-me-a ib₂-ta-e₃ e-še in-duda-de₃-en
lu₂ duglaḫtan-na-ke₄ a-na-še-am₃ ŋa₂-da nu-me-a im šu ba-e-ti e-še in-duda-de₃-en
lu₂ eme-gi₇-ra-ke₄ eme-uri bi₂-in-du₁₁ e-še in-duda-de₃-en }[4]

Students were also physically abused for poor scribal performance:

My master said to me, “Your hand is terrible!” And he hit me.

{ um-mi-a-ŋu₁₀ šu-zu nu-sa₆-sa₆ e-še in-duda-de₃-en }

“Beatings will continue until your handwriting improves” probably isn’t propitious pedagogy, especially if students are struck on their hands. Like the gender protrusion among young persons foregoing college education, the educational process can create problems that education is thought to solve.

The development of the scribal profession could have appreciated men’s penises relative to swords. Scribes used their hands skillfully and at length. A scribe’s member was crucial for his work:

A scribe without a hand is like a singer without a throat.

{ dub-sar cu nu-a nar jili3 nu-a }[5]

An ancient Sumerian proverb disparaging a scribe implicitly uses a stylus as a metaphor for a penis:

You may be a scribe on top, but you are no man beneath.

{ dub-sar an-ta-me-en lu2 ki-ta nu-me-en }[6]

Such a scribe apparently was effectively castrated. Men intimately, lovingly embracing women uses their penises to contribute vitally to new life. Scribal work is a much more humane metaphor for men’s sexuality than are dominant, brutalizing images of weapons and war. Regrettably, the sword prevailed over the pen and the penis.

Scribes became associated with women. Sumerian texts concerning the scribal profession typically conclude by honoring the ancient Mesopotamian goddess of writing:

Praise be to Nisaba!

{ dnisaba za₃-mim }[7]

The goddess Nisaba was regarded as the most important scribe:

Good woman, chief scribe of An, record-keeper of Enlil,
wise sage of the gods!

{ munus zid dub-sar mah an-na saj-tun3 den-lil2-la2
gal-zu igi-jal2 dijir-re-e-ne }[8]

Enlil was the nominal chief deity of the Sumerian pantheon. As record-keeper for Enlil, Nisaba fixed in clay the law, assets, and worship of divinities. She was thus enormously powerful. Other scribes were also women, but not all women in ancient Babylon were regarded as divinities.[9] However, successful scribes were generally like women in their relation to rulers.

You who speak as sweet as honey, you whose name suits the mouth, you longed-for husband of Inana, to whom Enki gave broad wisdom as a gift! Nisaba, the woman radiant with joy, the true woman, the scribe, the lady who knows everything, guides your fingers on the clay. She makes them put beautiful wedges on the tablets and adorns them with a golden stylus. Nisaba generously bestowed upon you the measuring rod, the surveyor’s gleaming line, the yardstick, and the tablets that confer wisdom.

{ ka lal3-gin7 dug3 mu ka-ge du7
cag4-ge de6-a dam dinana
den-ki-ke4 jectug2 dajal saj-e-ec rig7-ga
dnisaba munus ul-la gun3-a
munus zid dub-sar nin nij2-nam zu
si-zu im-ma si ba-ni-in-sa2
cag4 dub-ba-ka gu-cum2 mi-ni-in-sag9-sag9
gi-dub-ba kug-sig17-ka cu mu-ni-in-gun3
gi-1-nindan ec2-gana2 za-gin3
jic-as4-lum le-um igi-jal2 cum2-mu dnisaba-ke4 cu dajal ma-ra-an-dug4 }[10]

While men’s sexuality continued to be devalued, scribes intimately associated with dominant political and economic interests successfully grasped for influence and prestige. Ezra, a scribe and a priest living about 400 BGC, led Jews back from Babylonian captivity to Jerusalem and taught them to follow Mosaic law:

And it was his fate, after being honored by the people, to die an old man and to be buried with great magnificence in Jerusalem.

{ ᾧ συνέβη μετὰ τὴν παρὰ τῷ λαῷ δόξαν γηραιῷ τελευτῆσαι τὸν βίον καὶ ταφῆναι μετὰ πολλῆς φιλοτιμίας ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις. }[11]

Depicting scribes as eminent persons, Jesus warned his followers:

Beware of the scribes! They like to walk around in long robes, and they love personal greetings in the marketplaces and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and offer long prayers for appearance’s sake.

{ προσέχετε ἀπὸ τῶν γραμματέων τῶν θελόντων περιπατεῖν ἐν στολαῖς καὶ φιλούντων ἀσπασμοὺς ἐν ταῖς ἀγοραῖς καὶ πρωτοκαθεδρίας ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς καὶ πρωτοκλισίας ἐν τοῖς δείπνοις οἳ κατεσθίουσιν τὰς οἰκίας τῶν χηρῶν καὶ προφάσει μακρὰ προσεύχονται }[12]

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus extensively and harshly disparages the hypocrisy of scribes:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of Mosaic law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

{ οὐαὶ ὑμῖν γραμματεῖς καὶ Φαρισαῖοι ὑποκριταί ὅτι ἀποδεκατοῦτε τὸ ἡδύοσμον καὶ τὸ ἄνηθον καὶ τὸ κύμινον καὶ ἀφήκατε τὰ βαρύτερα τοῦ νόμου τὴν κρίσιν καὶ τὸ ἔλεος καὶ τὴν πίστιν ταῦτα δὲ ἔδει ποιῆσαι κἀκεῖνα μὴ ἀφιέναι ὁδηγοὶ τυφλοί οἱ διϋλίζοντες τὸν κώνωπα τὴν δὲ κάμηλον καταπίνοντες }[13]

The Gospel of Luke apparently uses “lawyer {νομικός}” synonymously with “scribe {γραμματεύς}”:

Woe to you lawyers! You have taken away the key of knowledge.

{ οὐαὶ ὑμῖν τοῖς νομικοῖς ὅτι ἤρατε τὴν κλεῖδα τῆς γνώσεως }[14]

Through their work with written texts, scribes and lawyers are responsible for preserving, interpreting, and disseminating knowledge for society as a whole. But like everyone else, they are also concerned for their own interests. Writers and lawyers use their work to curry favor with the rich and powerful, and to become rich and powerful themselves.[15]

Ezra the scribe repairing books

Writers who don’t gain favor from the rich and powerful typically gain no extrinsic rewards for their labor. Persons of wealth and leisure might write poetry to express themselves mainly to themselves, and perhaps also to signal their cultural sophistication.[16] For others, writing is a desperate business. From the ninth century, classical Arabic literature developed the motif “misery of literary writers.” The literary public as a whole has never been a patron to many writers. Consider, for example, the roguish Edward Ward. He was a writer who financially succeeded in London in 1698 with his prurient periodical publication The London Spy. Ward’s prefatory note “To the Reader” explained:

Some Authors are meer Beaus in Writing, and Dress up each Maggotty Flirt that creeps from their Mouldy Fancy, with a fine Dedication, tho’ to John-a-Nokes; and a long Preface to a little Matter, like an Aldermans Grace to a Scholar’s Commons, thinking their Pigmy Products look as Naked without these Ornaments, as a Puritan without his Band, or a Whore without her Patches.

For my part I only use this Preamble as a Sow Gelder does his Horn, that as by Hearing of the latter, you may give a shrewd guess at his Business; so by Reading of the former, you may rightly understand my Design, which I assure you in the first place, is not to Affront or Expose any Body; for all that I propose is, to Scourge Vice and Villany, without leveling Characters at any Person in particular.[17]

Ward’s prior book depicted the financial desperation of authors without elite patrons:

THE Condition of an Author is much like that of a Strumpet, both exposing our Reputations to sup­ply our Necessities, till at last we contract such an ill habit, thro’ our Practices, that we are equally troubl’d with an Itch to be alwas Doing; and if the reason be requir’d, Why we betake our selves to so Scandalous a Profession as Whoring or Pamphleteering, the same excusive Answer will serve us both, viz. That the unhappy circumstances of a Narrow Fortune, hath forc’d us to do that for our Subsistance, which we are much asham’d of.

The chiefest and most commendable Tallent, admir’d in either, is the knack of Pleasing; and He or She amongst us that happily arives to a Perfection in that sort of Witchcraft, may in a little time (to their great Honour) enjoy the Pleasure of being Celebrated by all the Coxcombs in the Nation.

The only difference between us is, in this perticular, where in the Jilt has the Advantage, we do our Business First, and stand to the Courtesie of our Benefactors to Reward us after; whilst the other, for her Security, makes her Rider pay for his Journey, before he mounts the Saddle.[18]

In 1787, another English writer depicted the typical misery of a literary author:

Say, why should POVERTY’S prediction
O’ercloud the sprightly scenes of Fiction?
Wherefore so long entail’d its curse,
On all the numerous sons of Verse?
Who scarce possessing from their birth
A legal settlement on earth
Exalted to a garret story,
Live on imaginary glory.[19]

Publication of novels grew rapidly from the mid-eighteenth century. Most writers of novels in the eighteenth century earned nothing from their work. Most novel writers today earn nothing. Whether William McGonagall exposing himself to being pelted with food, or a poet selling his work on the street, or Emily unhappily married to a poet, creative, literary writers have typically fared poorly.

impoverished poet in garret

Across the past four thousands years, financially successful writers have primarily produced and reproduced myths and praise in service to wealthy, powerful patrons.[20] Readers beware!

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Scribes thus became like lawyers. Recent scholarship has highlighted the interpretive work of scribes. See, e.g., Barmash (2020) Ch. 4, Toorn (2007).

[2] The advice of a supervisor to a younger scribe (Edubba’a C) (t.5.1.3) ll. 9-15, cuneiform Sumerian transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, second edition (ETCSL). Here’s an alternate Sumerian text. Edubba’a literature generally reflects scribal education in the earlier, Ur III period:

The dwellings House F, No. 7 Quiet Street {Nippur} and others like them that functioned as places of schooling elsewhere, for example at Isin, Tell ed-Der and Tell Harmal, clearly show that already in the Old Babylonian period much scribal training was a small-scale occupation run by private individuals and not by the state. … The Edubba-literature was traditional literature, already old when writing was taught in the houses of eighteenth-century Nippur and Ur. The tradition enshrined in Sumerian literature is that under the kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur (Ur III) there were special academies of learning in exactly these cities, Nippur and Ur. These institutions were very probably an innovation of this dynasty made to satisfy the growing bureaucracy’s demand for scribes that could not be met by the small-scale operations of the private sector.

George (2005) pp. 4-5, notes and references omitted. For an older description of Mesopotamian scribal education, Kramer (1956) Chapter 1.

The Edubba’a are “the oldest educational centers” known. Kramer (1949) p. 199. That’s true within the set of large, formalized, sedentary educational institutions. Such educational institutions are associated with the development of the bureaucratic state. In ancient Egypt:

the role of the scribe became vital with the development of a complex state at the beginning of the Old Kingdom. The computing and recording of taxes, the drawing up of census lists for military and labor corvées, and the calculations required for the massive building projects, all called for a large and well-trained civil service.

Williams (1972) p. 214.

Scribes practiced writing texts extolling the scribal profession:

Strive to master the scribal art, and it will enrich you.
Be industrious in the scribal art, and it will provide you with wealth and abundance,

{ nam-dub-sar-ra ir-pag u-bi-ak1 a-tuku ha-ra-ab-dah-e
nam-dub-sar-ra bar-dag1 u-bi-ak2 su-ni-gal-la a-ra-ab-tuku }

“In Praise of the Scribal Art” (also known as “Examination Text D”) ll. 4-5, Sumerian transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Sjöberg (1972). For commentary, Hurowitz (2000). Here’s a somewhat defective representation of “In Praise of the Scribal Art.” This text should be read as inspirational didactic propaganda, not as factual professional characterization. Cf. Nemetz (2023).

[3] Rules of the School (Edubba’a R) ll. 17-21, cuneiform Sumerian transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Gadotti & Kleinerman (2017) via Datenbank der sumerischen Streitliteratur (DSSt).

[4] Schooldays (Edubba’a A) ll .17, 26, 29, 35-40, cuneiform Sumerian transliteration from DSSt, my English translation drawing upon Pascal Attinger’s French translation for DSSt and the English translation of Kramer (1949). The subsequent quote above is similarly from Edubba’a A, l. 41. On beating scribal students in ancient Egypt, Williams (1972) p. 218.

Edubba’a A “was extremely popular in the Nippur schools.” Gadotti & Kleinerman (2017) p. 90. For Kramer’s commentary on the poem, Kramer (1956) Ch. 2.

[5] Proverbs, Collection 2, 2.43 (75), Sumerian transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from ETCSL.

[6] Proverbs, Collection 2, 2.44 (76), Sumerian transliteration from ETCSL, English translation (modified insubstantially) from Foster (1974) p. 81, n. 34. With regard to this proverb and Proverbs 1.98, which Foster translates as “You’re a humanist within but no human without,” Foster commented that these proverbs “could be interpreted as an assault on the opponent’s masculinity but are more probably a way of saying that despite his learning he is still a boor.” Id. I think it is in fact an assault on the scribe’s masculinity. That’s a common type of assault on men. ETCSL translates Proverbs 2.44 as “You are an outstanding scribe; you are no lowly man.” That translation seems to me too abstract.

[7] E.g. Edubba’a R. Praise of Nisaba could be more extensive:

Praise Nisaba who has brought order to … and fixed districts in their boundaries, the lady whose divine powers are divine powers that have no rival!

{ us2 tec2-ba ri-a si sa2-e in ki-bi sur-sur
nin me-ni-da me nu-sa2-a dnisaba za3-mi2 }

Edubba’a C, ll. 73-4, Sumerian transliteration and English translation from ETCSL.

[8] A hymn to Nisaba (Nisaba A) (t.4.16.1), ll. 12-3, Sumerian transliteration and English translation from ETCSL. Another hymn expresses desolating grief upon the destruction of a scriptorium:

… is destroyed.
… is destroyed. It is destroyed.
… of Nisaba is destroyed.
The house of Nisaba, her of the tablets,
is destroyed.
The house of
… is destroyed.

{ […]-/ba\ X-ra ba-gul
[…] /gul-gul ba-gul
[…] dnisaba ba-gul
[e2] [d]/nisaba\ mu-lu2 dub-ba-ka ba-[gul]
[e2] [d]CE.TIR-ma ba-gul
[e2] [d]/nun-bar-ce-gu-nu ba-/gul\
[X X] X e2-ha-mun ba-gul }

A šir-namšub to Nisaba (Nisaba B) (t.4.16.2), via ETCSL.

[9] On women writers in ancient Mesopotamia, Halton & Svärd (2017) and Meier (1991). Literacy in ancient Mesopotamia wasn’t limited to professional scribes. Charpin (2010). In modern scholarship, patriarchal myth, which is particularly inappropriate for ancient Mesopotamia and its active women, has tended to control interpretation of evidence:

The fact that women were not simply an (admittedly rare) alternative but a preferred choice in certain contexts points to significant areas where, in spite of patriarchal patterns, women were successful in a limited fashion in carving out niches of influence in the patriarchal power structure.

Meier (1991) p. 547. Since men historically have vastly predominated among victims of institutionalized violence, the institutionalized beating of scribes suggests that most scribes were men.

[10] A praise poem of Lipit-Eštar (Lipit-Eštar B) (t., ll. 15-24, Sumerian transliteration and English translation from ETCSL.

[11] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews {Ἰουδαϊκὴ ἀρχαιολογία} Book 11, 5.5 (158), ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Marcus (1937).

[12] Luke 20:46-7. Similarly, Mark 12:38. While scribes are mentioned repeatedly in the gospels, scribes are mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament only once. That sole mention is in 1 Corinthians 1:20. The early Christian communities were politically and religiously marginal. They depended mainly on personal authority. Scribes, in contrast, typically served well-established transactions, practices, and institutions. On how Jesus and his followers politically challenged the reigning elite, including scribes and Pharisees, Horsley (2014) Chapter 6.

[13] Matthew 23:23-4. Vigorously competing to guide Jewish belief, Matthew 23 intones six times, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites { οὐαὶ ὑμῖν γραμματεῖς καὶ Φαρισαῖοι ὑποκριταί}”: “The rhetoric is harsh, but the argument is Jewish and serious.” Saldarini (1992) p. 680. Scribes and Pharisees seem to refer sociologically to different groups. Little is known for sure about who these two groups were. Saldarini (1988). On characteristics of scribes, Tov (2004) Chapter 2.

[14] Luke 11:52. The lawyers in this context apparently were authorities in Mosaic law. On the identity of the lawyers more generally, Saldarini (1988) p. 669, n. 29. Luke 5:17 refers to “teachers of the law {νομοδιδάσκαλοι}.”

[15] Not all scribes at the time of Jesus were rich and powerful: “scribes were found at every level of society and did not form a cohesive group.” Saldarini (1992) p. 669, n. 30.

The author of Matthew seems to have been a marginal scribe. Duling (2002). The author perhaps modeled himself on Jesus’s depiction of a Christian scribe:

And Jesus said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure new things and old.”

{ ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς διὰ τοῦτο πᾶς γραμματεὺς μαθητευθεὶς τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν ὅμοιός ἐστιν ἀνθρώπῳ οἰκοδεσπότῃ ὅστις ἐκβάλλει ἐκ τοῦ θησαυροῦ αὐτοῦ καινὰ καὶ παλαιά }

Matthew 13:52. On this passage, Orton (1989).

[16] The Book of Sirach / Ecclesiasticus, composed probably in the first quarter of the second century BGC, depicts the scribe / writer as requiring leisure (and implicitly, an independent source of income):

A scribe’s wisdom is in the opportunity for leisure, and he who does less business, it is he who will become wise. How shall he who takes hold of a plow and boasts in the shaft of a goad become wise, when he drives cattle and is engaged in their tasks and his talk is about the offspring of bulls?

{ Σοφία γραμματέως ἐν εὐκαιρίᾳ σχολῆς, καὶ ὁ ἐλασσούμενος πράξει αὐτοῦ σοφισθήσεται. τί σοφισθήσεται ὁ κρατῶν ἀρότρου καὶ καυχώμενος ἐν δόρατι κέντρου, βόας ἐλαύνων καὶ ἀναστρεφόμενος ἐν ἔργοις αὐτῶν, καὶ ἡ διήγησις αὐτοῦ ἐν υἱοῖς ταύρων }

Sirach 38:24-5, ancient Greek (Septuagint) text from Kata Biblon and English translation of Benjamin G. Wright from Pietersma & Wright (2007). Sirach was first composed in Hebrew. I quote the Septuagint text becomes the Hebrew text isn’t readily available to me. This passage isn’t substantially different in the Hebrew version. For commentary on this passage, Finbow (2017).

[17] Ward (1703), pp. i-ii, “To the Reader.” Here’s a brief biography of Edward (Ned) Ward. Ward is known for the quote, “He’s as great a master of ill language as ever was bred at a Bear-Garden.” A bear-garden isn’t the same as a beer-garden, but the two places are somewhat related behaviorally.

[18] Ward (1698) p. 3, “To the Reader.” The term “hack” for a mediocre writer comes from “hackney,” a street carriage for quick, temporary hire.

[19] Keate (1787) p. 1 (Distressed Poet, vv. 1.1-8). Here’s more on George Keate, “draughtsman, painter, poet, naturalist, antiquary.” For a thematically related poem also from 1787, Berensmeyer (2015).

[20] Consider the “literary and creative” work of scribes in ancient Mesopotamia:

As for the literary and creative aspects of the Sumerian curriculum, it consisted primarily in studying, copying, and imitating the large and diversified group of literary compositions which must have originated and developed mainly in the latter half of the third millennium B.C. These ancient works, running into the hundreds, were almost all poetic in form, ranging in length from less than fifty lines to close to a thousand. Those recovered to date are chiefly of the following genres: myths and epic tales in the form of narrative poems celebrating the deeds and exploits of the Sumerian gods and heroes; hymns to gods and kings; lamentations bewailing the destruction of Sumerian cities; wisdom compositions including proverbs, fables, and essays.

Kramer (1956) p. 5. In other words, scribes reproduced established narratives, praised ruling kings and gods, and provided ideological guidance (wisdom) for oral dissemination to the masses. Most financially successful writers today perform similar functions.

[images] (1) Two goddesses lead a man in worship of a deified king, perhaps King Ur-Nammu. Excerpt from a modern impression from a seal made about 2100 BGC. Seal incription: “Ur-Nammu, strong man, king of Ur: Hash-hamer, governor of the city of Ishkun-Sin, is your servant {sur-nammu / nita kala-ga / lugal uri-ma ha-as-ha-me-er / ensi / ish-ku-en-EN.ZU / ir-zu}.” Seal preserved as museum number 89126 in The British Museum. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Ezra the scribe writing in a book-room. Illustration made for a Vulgate bible about 700 GC in northeast England at the Benedictine Monkwearmouth–Jarrow Abbey. Excerpt from folio 5r (alternate source) of the Codex Amiatinus (Jarrow Codex): Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatinus 1. At the top of the page is written: “When the sacred books had been burned by the enemy’s destruction, Ezra, fervent for the Lord, repaired this damage {Codicibus sacris hostili clade perustis Esdra Domino fervens hoc reparavit opus}.” Here’s some history of the Codex Amiatinus. (3) Impoverished poet working in miserable conditions in a garret. Painting entitled “The poor poet {Der arme Poet}.” Painted by Carl Spitzweg in 1839. Preserved as accession # 7751 in the Neue Pinakothek (Munich, Germany). Via Wikimedia Commons. (4) “The Distrest Poet.” Illustration of an impoverished poet in a garret. Etching composed about 1736-7 by William Hogarth for an associated oil painting. Excerpt from accession # 1944.5.80 (Rosenwald Collection) of the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC). The Princeton University Art Museum also has a version freely available as an image. Below this etching are the verses:

Studious he sate, with all his books around,
Sinking from thought to thought, a vast profound:
Plung’d for his sense, but found no bottom there;
Then writ and flounder’d on, in mere despair.

Those verses are explicitly attributed to (Alexander Pope’s) Dunciad, Book 1, line iii. Here’s a painting from the U.S. in 1811 depicting a poor author and rich bookseller.

Distrest poet: Hogarth's etching of an impoverished poet


Barmash, Pamela. 2020. The Laws of Hammurabi: At the Confluence of Royal and Scribal Traditions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Review by Dylan R. Johnson.

Berensmeyer, Ingo, Gero Guttzeit and Alise Jameson. 2015. ‘“The Brain-Sucker: Or the Distress of Authorship”: A Late Eighteenth-Century Satire of Grub Street.’ Authorship. 4(1): 1-14. Alternate source. Here’s the authors’ critical edition of “The Brain-Sucker: Or the Distress of Authorship.”

Charpin, Dominique, translated by Jane Marie Todd. 2010. Writing, Law, and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Review by Rochelle Altman.

Duling, D.C. 2002. “Matthew as marginal scribe in an advanced agrarian society.” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies. 58(2): 520-575.

Finbow, Douglas. 2017. The Wisdom of the Scribe: A Socio-Rhetorical and Theological Interpretation of Sirach 38:24–39:11. Ph.D. Thesis, Saint Paul University, Canada.

Foster, Benjamin R. 1974. “Humor and Cuneiform Literature.” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society. 6(1): 69-85.

Gadotti, Alhena and Alexandra Kleinerman. 2017. “The Rules of the School.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 137(1): 89–116.

George, Andrew. 2005. “In search of the é The ancient Mesopotamian school in literature and reality.” Pp. 127-137 in Jacob Klein and Yitzhak Sefati, eds. An Experienced Scribe Who Neglects Nothing: Ancient near Eastern Studies in Honor of Jacob Klein. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press.

Halton, Charles, and Saana Svärd, eds. and trans. 2017. Women’s Writing of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Anthology of the Earliest Female Authors. 2017. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Review by Agnès Garcia Ventura.

Horsley, Richard A. 2014. Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Hurowitz, Victor Avigdor. 2000. ‘Literary Observations on “In Praise of the Scribal Art.”’ Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society. 27(1): 49-56.

Keate, George. 1787. The Distressed Poet, A Serio-Comic Poem, in Three Cantos. London: Printed for J. Dodsley. Alternate presentation.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. 1949. “Schooldays: A Sumerian Composition Relating to the Education of a Scribe.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 69(4): 199-215.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. 1956. History Begins at Sumer. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Marcus, Ralph, ed. and trans. 1937. Josephus. Jewish Antiquities, Volume IV: Books 9-11. Loeb Classical Library 326. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Meier, Samuel A. 1991. “Women and Communication in the Ancient near East.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 111(3): 540–47.

Nemetz, Alexander. 2023. Credo of the Scribes: The value of wisdom in ancient Mesopotamian
. BA Thesis, Uppsala University, Finland.

Orton, David E. 1989. The Understanding Scribe: Matthew and the Apocalyptic Ideal. London: T & T Clark International.

Pietersma, Albert and Benjamin G Wright, eds. 2007. A New English Translation of the Septuagint and the Other Greek Translations Traditionally Included Under that Title. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Saldarini, Anthony J. 1988. Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society. Edinburgh: T and T Clark. Overview.

Saldarini, Anthony J. 1992. “Delegitimation of Leaders in Matthew 23.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly. 54(4): 659–80.

Sjöberg, Åke W. 1972. “In Praise of the Scribal Art.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies. 24(4): 126–31.

Toorn, Karel van der. 2007. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Review by Robert L Maxwell.

Tov, Emanuel. 2004. Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert. 2004. Leiden: Brill.

Ward, Edward. 1698. A Trip to Jamaica With a True Character of the People and Island. Edited by David Oakleaf. London.

Ward, Edward. 1703. The London Spy Compleat, In Eighteen-Parts. Edited by Ben Neudorf and Allison Muri. London: J. How.

Williams, Ronald J. 1972. “Scribal Training in Ancient Egypt.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 92(2): 214–214.

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