Aesthetics vs. Functionality in Shem Tov’s Debate between the Pen and the Scissors

Dr. Marina Aurora Garzón Fernández, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

Abstract: In this teaser of her post-doctoral project, Dr. Garzón Fernández gives insight into the Debate between the Pen and the Scissors written in 1345 by the Castilian rabbi Shem Tov ben Isaac Ardutiel (known as Sem Tob de Carrión).1 This text, a maqama genre text which combines prose and verse, was written mirroring the traditional “Debates between Pen and Sword” common in Islamic and Hebrew literature. However, in this parody, instead of confronting the Pen and the Sword as metaphors for administrative power and military power, Shem Tov portrayed two instruments arguing about their writing abilities. The Debate is thus rich in content concerning the philosophy of writing. Starting with traditional topoi, like the of role of writing in the preservation of memory, it also gathers considerations on the use and relevance of both utensils, and it stands out for the aesthetic analysis of paper-cut calligraphy.

Shem Tov sets the event on a cold winter day when icy streets and frozen rivers locked the rabbi in his house with no one to keep him company. Isolated and lonesome, he remembers that he who can write is never alone. The Pen, a writer’s best friend, is ever present: “a pen that has no heart understands my thoughts, and without an ear hears what I am feeling”. However, this moment of joy crashes soon against a crude reality. The moment he begins to write, the Pen hits the frozen ink, black and hard as a rock. Secluded, betrayed, and irritated the rabbi sees the hours go by under the glacial sun. Suddenly, the voice of the Scissors takes him out of his lethargy: “If the intense cold has stolen away the waters of the ink, and there is no pen which flows like a fountain, take for yourself a pen of iron”. The Scissors present themselves as an instrument for writing, but not merely as a substitute in an hour of need, but rather the creators of a script of unparalleled beauty.

And thus, a debate begins.

The reader can almost perceive the anthropomorphized Pen rolling its eyes at the Scissors as they proclaim with arrogance that the beauty of their script exceeds that of the best embroideries and mosaics. The Scissors describe the papercut letters as “marvelous holes”, a “result achieved by a miracle”, a script that can be compared to the writing of the Lord on the Stone Tablets. What’s more, they state that the value of poetry is elevated by the beauty of the script. And while “the writing of pen and ink is superfluous”, the writing of the Scissors is “magnificent” and can draw from all the colors: “It has a time for greenness, for ruby, for topaz and emerald, sometimes white and sometimes black. It takes off one shape and then dresses in another”.

Nevertheless, the Pen is not impressed by these superficial arguments. The Pen has other priorities. It is first concerned by the destructive nature of the Scissors, who can only create by wounding the paper. Contrarily, it sees itself as a giver, who gives away everything it takes (the ink). The integrity of the paper is key for the Pen. It insists that, were the writing left to the Scissors, what remained thereafter would be a fragile material — void of the discretion that is inherent in a rolled-up sheet of paper. The Scissors cannot keep secrets: “secrets get out, and even without any wine going in. This flaw is unacceptable for the Pen, who believes written documents should be able to conceal private matters and protect the secrets of the writer. In addition, the Pen finds the Scissors highly inefficient because they are slow writers: “The beginning of the word becomes already forgotten when it is still being begun. I hide by his hand in a dish, and before you write a line, I shall write out the books of Ezra and Daniel and every word in the Torah, with each word at the proper time and place”.

The Scissors respond gladly to these allegations. They are not interested in writing secrets; their script is precious, not meant to be hidden. “Shall we hide the glory of our deeds? Should he treat our document like a harlot? Treat it as he treats your document, which is not pleasing in the eyes of its master, and think it to be a harlot because it covers its face to hide its shame and its faults?” As for the speed, the Scissors aren’t ashamed of being slow and they even compare themselves to God: “For during the forty days and forty nights that Moses stood on the mountain he wrote nothing more than the two tablets of the Ten Commandments”. The Scissors cherish beauty and perfection, and they describe their work as “a piece of writing in their image and likeness [the Stone Tablets], completely beautiful and without blemish in it”.

Finally, the debate is settled by a third party. A poor man, “wise beyond all wisdom, a man of knowledge and intelligence”, is asked to sort through the different objects in the house and use each one for their natural task. After using the Pen for writing, the man grabs the Scissors and “with them he cut his fingernails, shaved his beard and trimmed his moustache”. The Pen wins the battle with honors.

The Debate between the Pen and the Scissors is a fascinating text that combines the Arabic appreciation and curiosity towards calligraphy with the Hebrew sensibility for everyday scenes, double entendres, and a refined sense of humor. Furthermore, the parody allows for an unusual discussion: the need and use of aesthetics and functionality. While the arguments of the Pen focus on pragmatism, the Scissors emphasize the superior beauty of their script over all. The aesthetic arguments gathered by Shem Tov about paper-cut calligraphy is what makes this text so unique. Not only does he insist (through the words of the Scissors), that the beauty of the script plays an important role on the perception of the text, but he also details the qualities that make paper-cut writing “a marvel”. He highlights the fragility of the object and says it is “a miracle” that those letters can stand by themselves: “But there is here no sorcery and no supernatural sign”. Finally, he points out that there exists no material more precious than the one that forms these letters that “blossom in the air”. The Scissors describe their script as immaterial: “I am precious to all that is spirit / For I am form without matter, and my body is made of nothingness. I am pure spirit”.

However, as compelling as their arguments were, the Scissors had no chance to win a debate that prioritized pragmatism. The question was never about which instrument achieved the most beautiful script, but rather which instrument was better for writing. No matter how close the Scissors were to the writing of God, they were never a convenient tool for calligraphy (except maybe in the case of extreme weather, when they were the only means that Shem Tov had on hand to write down his text). The Debate between the Pen and the Scissors was a debate about aesthetics versus functionality. The importance of functionality was so remarkable that, according to the text, after the battle was settled the king of the land ordered by royal decree that no one would be allowed to use a utensil for another purpose than the God-intended one. Fortunately, the royal decree was fictional, and it did not prevent calligraphers across the Mediterranean from creating miraculous papercut pieces, like the 15th century Egyptian papercut codex kept at the Gotha Library (Ms. Orient. A 42). During the Ottoman Empire the technique would flourish, becoming a signature craft of this period.2 Cut calligraphers, known as Kat’i, would create numerous pieces that can now be admired in museums across the world.3 The names of these calligraphers would be praised and immortalized in treaties, like Mustafas Ali’s “Epic Deeds of Artists”.4 Nevertheless, the maqama written by Shem Tov on a cold Castilian winter day remains the most significant testimony known to date about this extraordinary script “made of air”.5

My project “Writing with Scissors: a Calligraphy of Wonder”, funded by a post-doctoral Stipendium of the Fritz-Thyssen Foundation, seeks to study the art of paper-cut writing in the Middle Ages and analyze its aesthetic qualities. It is currently being developed in the context of the CRC 933 “Material Text-Cultures” at the University of Heidelberg.

Photo: Gotha papercut Codex (49v-50r), Egypt, 15th century, Gotha Research Library, University of Erfurt, Ms. Orient. A42. 

  1. Colahan, Clark (1979b): “Santob’s debate: Parody and political allegory. Conclusión”, Sefarad: Revista de Estudios Hebraicos y Sefardíes, 39, 2, pp. 265-308 [English translation from the Hebrew text: All subsequent quotations are taken from this edition]. []
  2. Kurz (1972), “Libri cum characteribus ex nulla materia compositis”, Israel Oriental Studies II, pp. 240–247. []
  3. Çagman (2014), Kat’i. Cut paper works and artists in the Ottoman world, Istanbul. []
  4. Âli / Akın (2011), Mustafa Alī’s epic deeds of artists: a critical edition of the earliest Ottoman text about the calligraphers and painters of the Islamic world, Leiden / Boston. []
  5. Garzón Fernández (2013), “Los escritos de tijeras: el arte de la caligrafía sin tinta”, in: Funciones y prácticas de la escritura: I Congreso de Investigadores Noveles en Ciencias Documentales.Escalona: Universidad Complutense de Madrid / Ayuntamiento de Escalona, pp. 103–108. []