Scribes were key to the administrative and legislative aspects of many societies after the creation of writing and fulﬁlled numerous functions other than simply record keeping.
Very often scribes were instrumental in creating and maintaining the legal, economic, and religious aspects of a culture. In many cultures scribes were a ruling class, and those who possessed literacy maintained a monopoly of knowledge over the largely illiterate agrarian and working-class members of society.
In cultures where only a small amount of the population was literate, or even had no concept of symbolic representation, scribal culture was also closely associated with ritual and religion, and in many cases scribes were responsible for the codification of writing, religion, and law.
The role of the scribe became important in castes or administrative classes within societies that helped develop and demonstrate the importance of symbolic forms and helped develop more sophisticated methods of notation.
These cases in the West led to the development of the alphabet and in the East to the codification of the Chinese language. Scribes were also extremely important in political structures, and many theorists link scribal culture to the expansion and political solidification of many civilizations.
Mesopotamia was the birthplace of writing and civilization, and as a result, scribes were extremely important as key administrators who maintained administrative and economic offices and also aided in the development of literature, religion, and historical documents. Scribes in Mesopotamia were trained early, in schools known as Tablet Houses, which were associated with important temples.
Scribes were initially not as vital in the Fertile Crescent, growing in importance when the Akkadians settled among Sumerians c. sixth millennium b.c.e. and became the dominant culture in 2350 b.c.e. Their scribes undertook a more systematic notation of the language, retaining the Sumerian ideograms, reading them in their own language, and creating a syllabary based on the Akkadian language.
The Akkadians used writing as something akin to a grid for comprehending and ordering the way in which the world worked. The systems of codified law are also attributed to the influence of scribal culture, and the Sumerian codes, while not the first, were the basis of legal codes for the following 1,000 years.
Scribes effectively maintained a monopoly of knowledge where literacy was restricted to a relative few who were trained from birth to belong to the administrative class. Scribal culture was also key in the diffusion of written systems for record keeping and codifying religion that spread throughout the region, particularly to Egypt and other surrounding kingdoms.
Scribes were extremely important to Egyptian culture, and it is generally thought that writing appeared c. 3150 b.c.e. in Egypt, two centuries after it appeared in Sumer. Scribes in Egypt used papyrus and as a result of its relatively perishable nature compared to the clay tablets used by the Sumerians for their cuneiform writing, much of early Egyptian work has vanished.
There is evidence that Egyptian scribal culture helped develop writing systems and hieroglyphics. In doing this they created a writing system that used phonetics and signs to represent consonants, which, unlike the Sumerian system, helped avoid ambiguity.
There was even a god of writing and of scribes, Thoth, who was considered a tricky god, and the written word was endowed with power where names had hidden meaning. Hieroglyphs were considered, not representations, but living realities that aided in religious ritual and funerals.
Hence, scribes were heavily involved in ritual and the organization of Egyptian culture and politics. Egyptian scribes may have been among the earliest in history, and Sumerian writing could be derived from Egyptian writing.
Writing developed indepenently in China. Earliest surviving examples of Chinese writing date to the 14th century b.c.e., found on bovine scapula bones and tortoise shells used for divination in Yin, the last capital of the Shang dynasty. Already advanced, the writing system consisted of ideograms, pictograms, and logograms that evolved into modern Chinese writing.
Short written inscriptions were also cast into Shnag ritual bronze objects, which became long texts detailing political and military events after the establishment of the Zhou (Chou) dynasty c. 122 b.c.e. Bamboo and wood slips and silk fabrices were also probably used as early writing materials but have not survived.
The earliest surviving Chinese writings were the works of priests/diviners who asked questions of the supernatural on behalf of kings and recorded the answers and outcomes. During the Zhou dynasty the diviners became scribes and historians charged with the task of keeping accurate records.
Paper was invented in China around the beginning of the Commen Era. The growing size and complexity of the Chinese state and society resulted in a trend that gradually systematized and simplified Chinese scipt. Written Chinese was adopted as the basis of written Korean, Japanese, and Vitenamese.
Known as the people of the book, Judaic culture enjoyed a much higher level of literacy than most cultures, as most of the Judaic tribes were encouraged to read in order to fulfill their religious duties.
By the seventh or sixth century b.c.e. scribes became central to religious practice, codified under David when scribes served under a minister in the king’s court and wrote and copied official texts, such as those inserted later into the book of David.
Priestly scribes were leaders of the dispersed communities in Babylon who kept records of what had been left behind during the Diaspora. Scribes helped the king keep order and levy taxes, and as time went on the importance of scribes in Judaic culture increased to the point where scribes became key to the political life of the Judaeans.
The scribal figure was often connected with the idea of wisdom and read and commented on the Torah in synagogue, becoming the primary interpreters of Jewish law. They also played an essential part in the courts and were indispensable in administrating and diplomacy.
Solomon may have been a scribe king who annotated a mass of texts, commentaries, and translations. As time went on, scribes became associated with Talmudic scholarship, and some scribes wrote copious commentaries, which were only cast in definitive form in the fourth and fifth centuries c.e.
Scribal culture was extremely important in the development of ancient civilizations, and they not only developed systems of writing that allowed the passage of knowledge down though history but also helped to codify the languages of various cultures and were extremely influential in most societies in governmental, administrative, religious, and economic aspects of state.