Hands in the Service of God: Life in a Monastic Scriptorium

It’s exam time in St Andrews, and among the common complaints which are circulating at the moment is the perennial woe of the PC-generation: ‘writing things by hand hurts.’ For students in college today, a time before computers, let alone typewriters, is difficult to imagine, and a world devoid even of printing presses doubly so. It is one of the defining features of the European Middle Ages, however, that centuries-worth of sources were recorded laboriously, letter by letter.

A 10th century example of Caroline Minuscule, a script developed under the Carolingians in order to standardise and clarify texts. (Wikimedia Commons)

Because of this, manuscript (literally, written by hand) production involved a number of distinctions not made in writing today. As one might expect, the creator of the work is the author, and a copy of his text which he wrote himself is called an autograph. (There are very few female mediaeval authors, but a few are known.) At times, however, an author wouldn’t write the text himself, instead reciting the words to a scribe known as an amanuensis. 

Monastic scribe at work. (Source.)

Over time, these original versions of the text, written by either the author or his amanuensis, would be copied in turn, a process with its own peculiarities. Notes made in the margins or between lines are called glosses, and could provide translations for difficult Latin terms, geographical detail, even discontented mutterings from scribes at work. Over time, different versions, or recensions, of texts occured, creating what are essentially lineages of texts related through the chain of copying. Because of this, many of the texts referred to on this blog, and in mediaeval history more generally, are editions which try to bring together and understand the changes wrought by so many individuals over time.

Because knowledge of Latin and literacy were often confined to ecclesiastics, the majority of these copies were made in monasteries, in dedicated spaces known as scriptoria. Here, the vellum pages were marked with rubrics, lettered, illustrated, and perhaps even decorated with gold leaf. This work, especially at the upper end of the scale, was done by highly trained specialists who were well-versed in the correct letter forms and abbreviations.

Thanks to the highly regulated nature of the monastic environment, its possible for us to know the exact details of these monks’ daily lives. The amount and type of food, their hours of labour, and the required penitence for non-comliance are all recorded in the monastic rules–of which there were many. A particularly harsh rule was ascribed to St David, who reputedly applied it to those in his monastery in 6th century Wales. Monks were to do all their own manual labour, eat only bread and water, and uphold the strictest standards of behaviour, meaning no yawning, sneezing, or spitting during prayers.

St David’s cathedral in Wales developed into a powerful bishop’s seat far removed from the monastic expectations of it’s founder. (Wikimedia Commons)

One of the details I like about this text (preserved as a section in a 12th century work), however, deals directly with the scriptorium, and in a way that testifies to the author’s direct experience.

“When the evening arrived and the ringing of the bell was heard, everyone would abandon what he was doing.” The author states. “Even if the bell resounded in anyone’s ears when just the tip of a letter–or even half the shape of that letter–was written, they would quickly get up and leave….”

The picture here of scribes deeply absorbed in their work, keen to finish just one more letter, is one that I’m sure we can all relate to. At the same time, the intensive process of writing in mediaeval scripts, where each letter required multiple careful strokes, would almost certainly put our own complaints about the strenuousness of handwriting to shame.

Learn More: 

The ‘rule of David’ appears copied into the Life of St David, written by Rhygyfarch, which seems quite difficult to find online. You can find the GoogleBooks citation to a printed version here, however.

14 thoughts on “Hands in the Service of God: Life in a Monastic Scriptorium

      • that really is dedication, we went to a NT site in deepest darkest wales a while back were they translated the bible into welsh can you imagine that🙂

      • Mind Boggling! I saw an exhibit about a similar project a year or two ago at the Library of Congress, where they were creating a modern manuscript Bible with the most beautiful illustrations.

  1. Thank you Marissa, another very interesting post. One thing that intrigues me is the transmission of design ideas across very long distances. I think it has been shown, for example, that design elements in the Lindisfarne Gospels, come from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. So how did these elements travel to remote monasteries in England?

    • Thanks, Peter! Once again, I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it. I haven’t heard specifically about the Irish-Syrian connection in manuscript styles, so I can’t answer your question very precisely. I have a feeling that the exchange of manuscripts might play quite a significant role here, and perhaps also the circulation of relics. After all, many pilgrims did travel to the Holy Land, mixing with the religious communities there and bringing back souvenirs. Another possibility could be influence from ecclesiastical councils, in which churchmen met from all over the Christian world. I know that churchmen from the British isles (notably Alcuin) were also involved in Charlemagne’s court, where a great cultural moment occurred, so that’s a third possibility.

      I think you’d have to ask an art historian if you wanted to know more, but these were a few ideas I had which might help to explain it.🙂


      • Sassanian Persian artistic motives travel very widely, especially in textile ornamentation; there’s a story called The Hunt of Bahram V Gor (who was a King of Persia ruling 420-438) that is found on textiles now in Sainte-Calais and Reims in France, Kön in Germany, Milan in Italy and Prague in Bohemia, and that’s just the ninth- and tenth-century survivors! But the most famous example, maybe, just lately is quite local to you, being the St Andrews Sarcophagus, whose hunting scene is supposed to have Sassanian models. It’s not just that piece, either; your man on the spot, Alex Woolf, has theories about this that merit hearing… But I assume that they will be published when he’s finished working them up, so I won’t pre-empt!

      • I’m surprised, actually that I haven’t heard about these particular theories before. He taught me my special subject on mediaeval Wales, but I haven’t heard him mention the sarcophagus (although I have at least seen it!) I’ll mention it to him next time I see him. I have heard that it has some very far-flung parallels, but I thought that they were all continental European.

  2. I also wanted to add one scribe’s comments about the pain of long-hand writing that someone sent me a while back:

    O most fortunate reader, wash your hands and thus take hold of the book, turn the pages carefully, keep your hand far from the page! Those who don’t know how to write think it is easy. O how hard it is to write: your eyes are burdened, your kidneys break, and all of your limbs get discouraged. Three fingers do the writing, but your whole body works. Just as a sailor wishes to arrive at his home port, so does a scribe long for the last line.

  3. Just one of the many things I find interesting about the medieval scriptoria is the type of very slow and methodical meditation upon the text being copied that would have been possible–or even usual, depending upon the monk’s dispositions and knowledge of Latin–during those centuries. Such meditation upon the text might not have affected the transmission of the text itself, but it would have affected the inner world of the monk, along with any work of his own he might have produced. I find myself wondering how much time the Venerable Bede spent copying texts, for example, those of others or his own.

    • You raise some interesting questions. We can sometimes tell how well a scribe understood the text he was copying by studying the mistakes he made. Distortions, particularly to proper names and unfamiliar terms, can be very useful in allowing us to gauge, even if imprecisely, the nature of the scribe’s familiarity with the text. I certainly think that most of them must have had a far more intimate awareness of things like vocabulary used than we today have, simply because of the intense concentration, as you say. I’m not sure, however, whether Bede would have made extensive copies of his works himself. Often, the model of ‘publishing’ involved the author sending an original text to an interested party, who would then arrange for a new copy to be made and passed on in turn. Much of his early education, however, probably consisted of copying–a necessity in an age before textbooks!

      • Thanks for your excellent and interesting comments. I’m sure some scribes would have simply toiled mechanically and paid little attention to the meaning of the text. But many others would surely have thought long and hard about the words and phrases they were copying at what to us would be a truly snail-like pace indeed. Latin, particularly, being the complex idiom it is, would lend itself to this sort of careful concentration as an aid to linguistic and other types of understanding. I myself have been puzzled over certain Latin passages for years and then suddenly realized how the grammar all fit together to arrive at meaning. And those who labored in the scriptorium would not only have been dealing with the Latin of a single period, but with the changes which occurred over the course of the many centuries of the first millennium in the language, and over a very broad geographical range. It’s all intriguing.

  4. Pingback: The (R)Evolution of Printing | mediaevalmusings

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