Scriptorium

Scriptorium

Overview

Scriptorium, literally "a place for writing", is commonly used to refer to a room in medieval European monasteries devoted to the copying of manuscripts by monastic scribe
Scribe
A scribe is a person who writes books or documents by hand as a profession and helps the city keep track of its records. The profession, previously found in all literate cultures in some form, lost most of its importance and status with the advent of printing...

s. Written accounts, surviving buildings, and archaeological excavations all show, however, that contrary to popular belief such rooms rarely existed: most monastic writing was done in cubicle-like recesses in the cloister
Cloister
A cloister is a rectangular open space surrounded by covered walks or open galleries, with open arcades on the inner side, running along the walls of buildings and forming a quadrangle or garth...

, or in the monks' own cells.
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Scriptorium, literally "a place for writing", is commonly used to refer to a room in medieval European monasteries devoted to the copying of manuscripts by monastic scribe
Scribe
A scribe is a person who writes books or documents by hand as a profession and helps the city keep track of its records. The profession, previously found in all literate cultures in some form, lost most of its importance and status with the advent of printing...

s. Written accounts, surviving buildings, and archaeological excavations all show, however, that contrary to popular belief such rooms rarely existed: most monastic writing was done in cubicle-like recesses in the cloister
Cloister
A cloister is a rectangular open space surrounded by covered walks or open galleries, with open arcades on the inner side, running along the walls of buildings and forming a quadrangle or garth...

, or in the monks' own cells. References in modern scholarly writings to 'scriptoria' more usually refer to the collective written output of a monastery, rather than to a physical room.

A scriptorium was a necessary adjunct to a library; wherever there was a library it can ordinarily be assumed that there was a scriptorium. Scriptoria in the conventional sense of a room set aside for the purpose probably only existed for limited periods of time, when an institution or individual wanted a large number of texts copied to stock a library; once the library was stocked, there was no further need for a designated room. By the start of the 13th century secular copy-shops developed; professional scribes may have had special rooms set aside for writing, but in most cases they probably simply had a writing-desk next to a window in their own house.

San Giovanni Evangelista, Rimini


At this church whose patron was Galla Placidia
Galla Placidia
Aelia Galla Placidia , daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, was the Regent for Emperor Valentinian III from 423 until his majority in 437, and a major force in Roman politics for most of her life...

 (died 450), paired rectangular chambers flanking the apse, accessible only from each aisle, have been interpreted as paired (Latin and Greek) libraries and perhaps scriptoria. Their copious illumination, niches .5 meter deep, provisions for hypocaust
Hypocaust
A hypocaust was an ancient Roman system of underfloor heating, used to heat houses with hot air. The word derives from the Ancient Greek hypo meaning "under" and caust-, meaning "burnt"...

s beneath the floors to keep the spaces dry, have prototypes in the architecture of Roman libraries.

When monastic libraries and scriptoria arose in the early 6th century (the first European monastic writing dates from 517), they defined European literary culture and selectively preserved the literary history of the West. Monks copied Jerome's Latin Vulgate Bible and the commentaries and letters of early Church Fathers for missionary purposes as well as for use within the monastery. The products of the scriptorium provided a valuable medium of exchange. Within the scriptorium, there was typically a division of labor between the monks who readied the parchment for copying by smoothing and chalking the surface, those who ruled the parchment and copied the text, and those who illuminated the text. Sometimes a single monk would engage in all of these stages to prepare a manuscript. By the start of the 13th century, monastic manuscript production declined because secular copyshops had developed to write for the laity. These were closely followed by urban bookshops circa 1250 that before the introduction of printing in the last quarter of the fifteenth century had already virtually replaced the monastery as a source for books.

The individual traditions of scriptoria developed in incomplete isolation, to the extent that the modern paleographer learns to identify the product of each scriptorium and date it approximately by comparison with other, datable productions of that scriptorium. At the same time, comparisons of the characteristic "hand
Hand (handwriting)
A Hand, in calligraphy and palaeography refers to one of several historical varieties of formal, impersonal, generic and exemplary writing styles...

" of scriptoria reveal social and cultural connections among them, as new hands developed and were disseminated by travelling individuals and by the examples of manuscripts that passed from one library to another.

The illuminators of manuscripts
Illuminated manuscript
An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript in which the text is supplemented by the addition of decoration, such as decorated initials, borders and miniature illustrations...

 worked in collaboration with scribes in intricate variety of interaction that preclude any simple pattern of monastic manuscript production.

Of Cassiodorus at Vivarium


The monastery built in the second quarter of the 6th century under the eye of Cassiodorus
Cassiodorus
Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator , commonly known as Cassiodorus, was a Roman statesman and writer, serving in the administration of Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths. Senator was part of his surname, not his rank.- Life :Cassiodorus was born at Scylletium, near Catanzaro in...

 at Vivarium in southern Italy contained a purpose-built scriptorium, because he was consciously attempting to collect, copy, and preserve texts.

Cassiodorus' description of his monastery contained a purpose-built scriptorium, with self-feeding oil lamps, a sundial
Sundial
A sundial is a device that measures time by the position of the Sun. In common designs such as the horizontal sundial, the sun casts a shadow from its style onto a surface marked with lines indicating the hours of the day. The style is the time-telling edge of the gnomon, often a thin rod or a...

, and a water-clock. The scriptorium would also have contained desks for the monks to sit at and copy texts, as well as the necessary ink wells, penknives, and quills. Cassiodorus also established a library where, at the end of the Roman Empire
Decline of the Roman Empire
The decline of the Roman Empire refers to the gradual societal collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Many theories of causality prevail, but most concern the disintegration of political, economic, military, and other social institutions, in tandem with foreign invasions and usurpers from within the...

, he attempted to bring Greek learning to Latin readers and preserve texts both sacred and secular for future generations. As its unofficial librarian, Cassiodorus collected as many manuscripts as he could, he also wrote treatises aimed at instructing his monks in the proper uses of texts. In the end, however, the library at Vivarium was dispersed and lost, though it was still active circa 630.

Of the Benedictines


Cassiodorus's contemporary, Benedict of Nursia
Benedict of Nursia
Saint Benedict of Nursia is a Christian saint, honored by the Roman Catholic Church as the patron saint of Europe and students.Benedict founded twelve communities for monks at Subiaco, about to the east of Rome, before moving to Monte Cassino in the mountains of southern Italy. There is no...

, also allowed his monks to read the great works of the pagans in the monastery he founded at Monte Cassino
Monte Cassino
Monte Cassino is a rocky hill about southeast of Rome, Italy, c. to the west of the town of Cassino and altitude. St. Benedict of Nursia established his first monastery, the source of the Benedictine Order, here around 529. It was the site of Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944...

 in 529
529
Year 529 was a common year starting on Monday of the Julian calendar. At the time, it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Decius without colleague...

. The creation of a library here initiated the tradition of Benedictine scriptoria, where the copying of texts not only provided materials actually needed in the routines of the community and served as work for hands and minds otherwise idle, but produced a valuable product. Saint Jerome
Jerome
Saint Jerome was a Roman Christian priest, confessor, theologian and historian, and who became a Doctor of the Church. He was the son of Eusebius, of the city of Stridon, which was on the border of Dalmatia and Pannonia...

 stated that the products of the scriptorium could be a source of revenue for the monastic community, but Benedict cautioned, "If there be skilled workmen in the monastery, let them work at their art in all humility".

In the earliest Benedictine monasteries, the writing room was actually a corridor open to the central quadrangle of the cloister
Cloister
A cloister is a rectangular open space surrounded by covered walks or open galleries, with open arcades on the inner side, running along the walls of buildings and forming a quadrangle or garth...

. The space could fit approximately twelve monks, who were protected from the elements by only the wall behind them and the vaulting above. Monasteries built later in the Middle Ages placed the scriptorium inside, near the heat of the kitchen or next to the calefactory. The warmth of the later scriptoria served as an incentive for unwilling monks to work on the transcription of texts (since the charter house was rarely heated).

The Benedictine Plan of St. Gall is a sketch of an idealised monastery dating from 819-826, which shows the scriptorium and library attached the northeast corner of the main body of the church; this is not reflected by the evidence of surviving monasteries. Although the purpose of the plan is unknown, it clearly shows the desirability of scriptoria within a wider body of monastic structures at the beginning of the 9th century.

Of the Cistercians


The scriptoria of the Cistercian order seem to have been similar to those of the Benedictines. The mother house at Cîteaux, one of the best-documented high-medieval scriptoria, developed a severe "house style" in the first half of the twelfth century that spread in parallel with the Cistercian order itself, through the priories of Burgundy and beyond. In 1134, the Cistercian order declared that the monks were to keep silent in the scriptorium as they should in the cloister
Cloister
A cloister is a rectangular open space surrounded by covered walks or open galleries, with open arcades on the inner side, running along the walls of buildings and forming a quadrangle or garth...

. However, there is evidence that in the late 13th century, the Cistercians would allow certain monks to perform their writing in a small cell "which could not... contain more than one person". These cells were called scriptoria because of the copying done there, even though their primary function was not as a writing room.

Of the Carthusians


The Carthusian
Carthusian
The Carthusian Order, also called the Order of St. Bruno, is a Roman Catholic religious order of enclosed monastics. The order was founded by Saint Bruno of Cologne in 1084 and includes both monks and nuns...

s viewed copying religious texts as their missionary work to the greater Church
Roman Catholic Church
The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the world's largest Christian church, with over a billion members. Led by the Pope, it defines its mission as spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, administering the sacraments and exercising charity...

; the strict solitude of the Carthusian order necessitated that the manual labor of the monks be practiced within their individual cells, thus many monks engaged in the transcription of texts. In fact, each cell was equipped as a copy room, with parchment, quill, inkwell, and ruler. Guigues du Pin, or Guigo, the architect of the order, cautioned, "Let the brethren take care the books they receive from the cupboard do not get soiled with smoke or dirt; books are as it were the everlasting food of our souls; we wish them to be most carefully kept and most zealously made."

Rule of Saint Ferréol


Monastic life in the Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

 was strictly centered around prayer
Liturgy of the hours
The Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office is the official set of daily prayers prescribed by the Catholic Church to be recited at the canonical hours by the clergy, religious orders, and laity. The Liturgy of the Hours consists primarily of psalms supplemented by hymns and readings...

 and manual labor. In the early Middle Ages, there were many attempts to set out an organization and routine for monastic life. Montalembert
Charles Forbes René de Montalembert
Charles Forbes René de Montalembert was a French publicist and historian.-Family history:He belonged to a family of Angoumois, which could trace its descent back to the 13th century. Charters carry the history of the house two centuries further...

 cites one such sixth century document, the Rule of Saint Ferréol, as prescribing that "He who does not turn up the earth with the plough ought to write the parchment with his fingers." As this implies, the labor required of a scribe
Scribe
A scribe is a person who writes books or documents by hand as a profession and helps the city keep track of its records. The profession, previously found in all literate cultures in some form, lost most of its importance and status with the advent of printing...

 was comparable to the exertion of agriculture and other outdoor work. Another of Montalembert's examples is of a scribal note along these lines: "He who does not know how to write imagines it to be no labour, but although these fingers only hold the pen, the whole body grows weary."

Cassiodorus' Institutes


Although not a monastic rule as such, Cassiodorus
Cassiodorus
Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator , commonly known as Cassiodorus, was a Roman statesman and writer, serving in the administration of Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths. Senator was part of his surname, not his rank.- Life :Cassiodorus was born at Scylletium, near Catanzaro in...

 did write his Institutes as a teaching guide for the monks at Vivarium, the monastery he founded on his family's land in southern Italy. A classically educated Roman convert, Cassiodorus wrote extensively on scribal practices. He cautions over-zealous scribes to check their copies against ancient, trustworthy exemplars
Exemplars
The Exemplars is a fictional group appearing in the Marvel Comics universe. It was made up of eight humans - Bedlam, Carnivore, Conquest, Decay, Inferno, Juggernaut, Stonecutter, and Tempest - who were empowered by the Octessence.-History:...

 and to take care not to change the inspired words of scripture because of grammatical or stylistic concerns. He declared "every work of the Lord written by the scribe is a wound inflicted on Satan", for "by reading the Divine Scripture he wholesomely instructs his own mind and by copying the precepts of the Lord he spreads them far and wide". It is important to note that Cassiodorius did include the classical texts of ancient Rome and Greece in the monastic library. This was probably because of his upbringing, but was, nonetheless, unusual for a monastery of the time. When his monks copied these texts, Cassiodorus encourages them to amend texts for both grammar and style.

Rule of Saint Benedict


The more famous monastic treatise of the 7th century, Saint Benedict of Nursia
Benedict of Nursia
Saint Benedict of Nursia is a Christian saint, honored by the Roman Catholic Church as the patron saint of Europe and students.Benedict founded twelve communities for monks at Subiaco, about to the east of Rome, before moving to Monte Cassino in the mountains of southern Italy. There is no...

's Rule
Rule of St Benedict
The Rule of Saint Benedict is a book of precepts written by St. Benedict of Nursia for monks living communally under the authority of an abbot. Since about the 7th century it has also been adopted by communities of women...

, fails to mention the labor of transcription by name. It is important to note that the Rule of Saint Benedict does explicitly call for monks to have ready access to books during two hours of compulsory daily reading and during Lent
Lent
In the Christian tradition, Lent is the period of the liturgical year from Ash Wednesday to Easter. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer – through prayer, repentance, almsgiving and self-denial – for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and...

, when each monk is to read a book in its entirety. Thus each monastery was to have its own extensive collection of books, to be housed either in armarium (book chests) or a more traditional library. However, because the only way to obtain a large quantity of books in the Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

 was to copy them, in practice this meant that the monastery had to have a way to transcribe texts in other collections. It is worthwhile to note that an alternative translation of Benedict's strict guidelines for the oratory as a place for silent, reverent prayer actually hints at the existence of a scriptorium. In Chapter 52 of his Rule, Benedict's warns: "Let the oratory be what it is called, and let nothing else be done or stored there". But condatur translates both as stored and to compose or write, thus leaving the question of Benedict's intentions for manuscript production ambiguous. The earliest commentaries on the Benedictine rule describe the labor of transcription as the common occupation of the community, so it is also possible that Benedict failed to mention the scriptorium by name because of the integral role it played within the monastery.

Trithemius' Praise of Scribes


Abbot Johannes Trithemius
Johannes Trithemius
Johannes Trithemius , born Johann Heidenberg, was a German abbot, lexicographer, historian, cryptographer, polymath and occultist who had an influence on later occultism. The name by which he is more commonly known is derived from his native town of Trittenheim on the Mosel in Germany.-Life:He...

 of Sponheim wrote a letter, De Laude Scriptorum (In Praise of Scribes), to Gerlach, Abbot of Deutz in 1492 to describe for monks the merits of copying texts. Trithemius contends that the copying of texts is central to the model of monastic education, arguing that transcription enables the monk to more deeply contemplate and come to a more full understanding of the text. He then continues to praise scribes by saying "The dedicated scribe, the object of our treatise, will never fail to praise God, give pleasure to angels, strengthen the just, convert sinners, commend the humble, confirm the good, confound the proud and rebuke the stubborn". Among the reasons he gives for continuing to copy manuscripts by hand, are the historical precedent of the ancient scribes and the supremacy of transcription to all other manual labor. This description of monastic writing is especially important because it was written after the first printing presses came into popular use. Trithemius addresses the competing technology when he writes, "The printed book is made of paper and, like paper, will quickly disappear. But the scribe working with parchment ensures lasting remembrance for himself and for his text". Trithemius also believes that there are works that are not being printed but are worth being copied.

The role of books and transcription in monastic life



The scribes often spent their entire life in an ill-lit scriptorium. Manuscript-writing was a laborious process that could damage one's health. One prior complained in the tenth century:


"Only try to do it yourself and you will learn how arduous is the writer's task. It dims your eyes, makes your back ache, and knits your chest and belly together. It is a terrible ordeal for the whole body".


The director of a monastic scriptorium was the armarius ("provisioner"), who provided the scribes with their materials and supervised the copying process. However, the armarius had other duties as well. At the beginning of Lent, the armarius was responsible for making sure that all of the monks received books to read, but he also had the ability to deny access to a particular book. By the 10th century the armarius had specific liturgical duties as well, including singing the eighth responsory
Responsory
-Definition:The most general of a responsory is any psalm, canticle, or other sacred musical work sung responsorially, that is, with a cantor or small group singing verses while the whole choir or congregation respond with a refrain. However, this article focuses on those chants of the western...

, holding the lantern aloft when the abbot read, and approving all material to be read aloud in church, chapter, and refectory
Refectory
A refectory is a dining room, especially in monasteries, boarding schools and academic institutions. One of the places the term is most often used today is in graduate seminaries...

.

While serving as the armarius at Vivarium c. 540-548, Cassiodorus wrote a commentary on the Psalms entitled Expositio Psalmorum as an introduction to the Psalms for individuals seeking to enter the monastic community. The work had a broad appeal outside of Cassiodorus' monastery as the subject of monastic study and reflection. In his comparison of modern and medieval scholarship, James J. O'Donnell describes monastic study in this way:


"[E]ach Psalm would have to be recited at least once a week all through the period of study. In turn, each Psalm studied separately would have to be read slowly and prayerfully, then gone through with the text in one hand (or preferably committed to memory) and the commentary in the other; the process of study would have to continue until virtually everything in the commentary has been absorbed by the student and mnemonically keyed to the individual verses of scripture, so that when the verses are recited again the whole phalanx of Cassiodorian erudition springs up in support of the content of the sacred text".


In this way, the monks of the Middle Ages came to intimately know and experience the texts that they copied. The act of transcription became an act of meditation and prayer, not a simple replication of letters.

See also

  • Cassiodorus
    Cassiodorus
    Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator , commonly known as Cassiodorus, was a Roman statesman and writer, serving in the administration of Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths. Senator was part of his surname, not his rank.- Life :Cassiodorus was born at Scylletium, near Catanzaro in...

  • Codex
    Codex
    A codex is a book in the format used for modern books, with multiple quires or gatherings typically bound together and given a cover.Developed by the Romans from wooden writing tablets, its gradual replacement...

  • Johann Gutenberg
  • Manuscript
    Manuscript
    A manuscript or handwrite is written information that has been manually created by someone or some people, such as a hand-written letter, as opposed to being printed or reproduced some other way...

  • Manuscript culture
    Manuscript culture
    Manuscript culture uses manuscripts to store and disseminate information; in the West, it generally preceded the age of printing. In early manuscript culture monks copied manuscripts by hand, mostly religious texts. Medieval manuscript culture deals with the transition of the manuscript from the...

  • Plan of Saint Gall
    Plan of Saint Gall
    The Plan of Saint Gall is a famous medieval architectural drawing of a monastic compound dating from the early 9th century. It is preserved in the Stiftsbibliothek Sankt Gallen, Ms 1092....

  • Rule of Saint Benedict

Further reading


  • Alexander, J. J. G. Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
  • Bischoff, Bernard, "Manuscripts in the Age of Charlemagne," in Manuscripts and Libraries in the Age of Charlemagne, trans. Gorman, pp. 20–55. Surveys regional scriptoria in the early Middle Ages.
  • Diringer, David. The Book Before Printing: Ancient, Medieval and Oriental. New York: Dover, 1982.
  • Lawrence, C.H. Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, Ed. 2. London: Longman, 1989.
  • Maitland, Samuel Roffey
    Samuel Roffey Maitland
    Samuel Roffey Maitland was an English historian and miscellaneous writer on religious topics. He was in Anglican orders, and worked also as a librarian, barrister and editor.-Early life:...

    . The Dark Ages. London : J.G.F. & J.Rivington, 1844. Archive.org
  • McKitterick, Rosamond. "The Scriptoria of Merovingian Gaul: a survey of the evidence." In Books, Scribes and Learning in the Frankish Kingdoms, 6th-9th Centuries, VII 1-35. Great Yarmouth: Gilliard, 1994. Originally published in H.B. Clarke and Mary Brennan, trans., Columbanus and Merovingian Monasticism, (Oxford: BAR International Serries 113, 1981).
  • McKitterick, Rosamond. "Nun's scriptoria in England and Francia in the eighth century". In Books, Scribes and Learning in the Frankish Kingdoms, 6th-9th Centuries, VII 1-35. Great Yarmouth: Gilliard, 1994. Originally published in Francia 19/1, (Sigmaringen: Jan Thornbecke Verlag, 1989).
  • Nees, Lawrence. Early Medieval Art. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 2002.
  • Shailor, Barbara A. The Medieval Book. Toronto: U Toronto Press, 1991.
  • Sullivan, Richard. "What Was Carolingian Monasticism? The Plan of St Gall and the History of Monasticism." In After Romes's Fall: Narrators and Sources of Early Medieval History, edited by Alexander Callander Murray, 251-287. Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 1998.
  • Vogue, Adalbert de. The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary. Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1983.


External links