During the height of Mayan civilization, it seems that the court of every ruler had for itself a scribe: someone who could record the goings on of the king, write down the local history, and compose messages or important documents. Paintings of scribes from this time depict them as seated cross-legged on the floor, wearing a short kilt, a headpiece, and holding a pile of brushes, ready to write.
Court scribes would have been men of very high rank – well educated, with noble families in positions of power. Primarily, they were responsible for glorifying the king’s accomplishments through art and literature, and many of these pieces were used as public displays to strike awe into the hearts of the people – if one was to compare a Mayan scribe’s job with a modern career, he could be likened to a professional propagandist.
Though they lived in the lap of luxury for most of their lives, the downside of being a Mayan scribe came during times of war – after all, if the enemy can capture someone who has spent a great deal of time in the king’s court, hearing all of his strategies and plans, what better target than a royal scribe? In addition, any scribe who had devoted his life to another ruler’s glorification certainly wasn’t going to be of any use to an enemy king… and so, since Mayans could always use another excuse for a public spectacle, the attacking tribe would humiliate the scribe in a public ceremony, first mutilating him amidst the cheers of the watching crowd, leading toward his execution. One of the favored methods of torture was breaking a scribe’s fingers and tearing out his fingernails, though cutting the fatty pads of flesh off the fingers to the bone was also an option.
Although it may seem more viable for an enemy king to have simply retrained captured scribes and forced their allegiance, it was likely that the king would have had many of his own scribes already, and simply not needed the services of another. In addition, it also wasn’t unusual for a scribe to be related to the defeated king in some capacity or another, which would have made any forced allegiances questionable at best.
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