Lex scriptoria

Lex mercatoria → lex scriptoria → this blog

What is lex scriptoria? It’s Latin for “the law of writers” and is my conception of what this blog is about. I created it to be evocative of the well-known phrase lex mercatoria. OK, well known if you are a legal historian. All right, a legal historian interested in medieval commercial law.

lex mercatoriaLex mercatoria refers to a body of customs and rules that were developed by merchants during medieval times. It  is Latin for the  “law of merchants”.  Lex mercatoria served as an international set of laws enforced by tribunals of merchants separate from either governmental or ecclesiastical courts of the day. It declined as stronger national systems, including national commercial codes, arose in the late medieval period, but the national codes were often adapted from lex mercatoria, and courts still looked to lex mercatoria in commercial disputes. It eventually came to be used as a general term for commercial law itself.

So, for me, lex scriptoria describes a subset of law and custom. It is all the law relevant to writers as well as the customs, or practices, of those in the business of writing. While lex scriptoria includes actual law – statutes and cases – note that it also includes the practices of those in and around the world of writers.

In the law plus practices formulation, I bring expertise in the former and an interest in the latter. I hope that his blog serves a useful device for exploring both.

I plan to focus both on newsworthy issues as they arise and on the general background of law that writers might want to know. My hope in doing so is that this blog will serve both to explore and to elucidate lex scriptoria.

First warning. You should stop reading.

OK, you should probably stop reading now, as I continue to discuss my choice of lex scriptoria. Seriously, we’re going to dip down into the Latin.

In attempting to come up with the writer equivalent of lex mercatoria, I debated whether to use the latin base word scriptor or the base word auctor. Scriptor is most commonly translated as “writer” and auctor as “author”.

St. Bonaventure, a thirteenth century Franciscan monk, distinguished the words in this way:

There are four ways of making a book. Sometimes a man writes others’ words, adding nothing and changing nothing; and he is simply called a scribe [scriptor]. Sometimes a man writes others’ words, putting together passages that are not his own; and he is called a compiler [compilator]. Sometimes a man writes both others’ words and his own, but with others’ words in prime place and his own added only for purposes of clarification; and he is called not an author but a commentator [commentator]. Sometimes a man writes both his own words and others’, but with his own in prime place and others’ added only for purposes of confirmation; and he should be called an author [auctor].

This quote is frequently cited as quite extraordinary in how close it comes to capturing modern conceptions; however, a deeper reading of St. Bonaventure’s text reveals that his conceptions of writer and author were not as close to modern thought as this particular passage seems to convey. While the term scriptor is often equated to one who scribes, in other words as the person who literally writes things down, and auctor seems closer to author, neither term really captures the modern conception of either writer or author.

I eventually chose to use lex scriptoria instead lex auctoria for four reasons. First, I wanted a term that was closer to writer than author. Second, the Latin word auctor has a rather broad meaning and many different connotations and uses. In fact, it is more commonly used to mean “authority” or “power”. It is the source of the modern word “authority”. Third, at least one Latin scholar* I talked to said scriptor came closer to our modern conception than auctor. Finally, I just liked the sound of lex scriptoria better than lex auctoria.

Second warning. You should stop reading.

If you haven’t stopped reading by now, you really should. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So, having chosen to use scriptor instead of auctor, I was then left to create the correct phrase together with lex, which in case you have not deduced it yet from the context means law. So I dug back into Latin grammar. Both scriptor and auctor are third declension nouns. I decided to use the genitive case, which is fairly close to what we think of as a possessive form of nouns. This should have yielded an acceptable phrase for the “law of writers”. However, the genitive plural third declension ending is -um, yielding lex scriptorum. The problem with that construction was that the word for merchant was mercator, also a third declension noun. So why was the well known phrase lex mercatoria instead of lex mercatorum?

I eventually found the answer, confirmed by my expert*, by searching through all possible Latin endings until I found -ia listed as an adjectival form of nouns, including third declension nouns. Using the genitive/possessive was incorrect; I needed the adjectival form of the word.

Thus, lex scriptoria, the law of writers.

Just for the record, I did warn you to stop reading way back up there somewhere. You can’t blame me if you kept reading anyway.

*Dr. Gaffney, my eighth grade Latin teacher. Dr. Gaffney knows his stercore; you don’t question Dr. Gaffney.


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