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Scriptorium,[2] 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 scribes. Written accounts, surviving buildings, and archaeological excavations all show, however, that contrary to popular belief(Citation needed) such rooms rarely existed: most monastic writing was done in cubicle-like recesses in the cloister, 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.[3] 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, RiminiEdit

At this church whose patron was Galla Placidia (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.[4] Their copious illumination, niches .5 meter deep, provisions for hypocausts beneath the floors to keep the spaces dry, have prototypes in the architecture of Roman libraries.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7]

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" 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.

File:Scriptorium - 15th Century - Project Gutenberg eText 16531.jpg

The illuminators of manuscripts worked in collaboration with scribes in intricate variety of interaction that preclude any simple pattern of monastic manuscript production.[9]

The physical scriptoriumEdit

Of Cassiodorus at VivariumEdit

The monastery built in the second quarter of the 6th century under the eye of Cassiodorus 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, 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, 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. (Citation needed)

Of the BenedictinesEdit

Cassiodorus's contemporary, Benedict of Nursia, also allowed his monks to read the great works of the pagans in the monastery he founded at Monte Cassino in 529. 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 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".[10]

In the earliest Benedictine monasteries, the writing room was actually a corridor open to the central quadrangle of the cloister.[11] 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.[12]

Of the CisterciansEdit

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[13] that spread in parallel with the Cistercian order itself, through the priories of Burgundy and beyond.[14] In 1134, the Cistercian order declared that the monks were to keep silent in the scriptorium as they should in the cloister. 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".[15] These cells were called scriptoria because of the copying done there, even though their primary function was not as a writing room.

Of the CarthusiansEdit

The Carthusians viewed copying religious texts as their missionary work to the greater Church; 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."[16]

Scriptoria in monastic rulesEdit

Rule of Saint FerréolEdit

File:Meister des Codex Amiatus 001.jpg

Monastic life in the Middle Ages was strictly centered around prayer and manual labor. In the early Middle Ages, there were many attempts to set out an organization and routine for monastic life. Montalembert 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."[17] As this implies, the labor required of a scribe 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."[18]

Cassiodorus' InstitutesEdit

Although not a monastic rule as such, Cassiodorus 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 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".[19] 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 encouraged them to amend texts for both grammar and style.[20]

Rule of Saint BenedictEdit

The more famous monastic treatise of the 7th century, Saint Benedict of Nursia's Rule, fails to mention the labor of transcription by name, though his institution, the monastery of Montecassino, developed one of the most influential scriptoria, at its acme in the 11th century, which made the abbey "the greatest center of book production in South Italy in the High Middle Ages".[21] Here was developed and perfected the characteristic "Cassinese" Beneventan script under Abbot Desiderius.

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, when each monk is to read a book in its entirety.[22] 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 was to copy them, in practice this meant that the monastery had to have a way to transcribe texts in other collections.[23] 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".[24] But condatur translates both as stored and to compose or write, thus leaving the question of Benedict's intentions for manuscript production ambiguous.[25] 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 ScribesEdit

Abbot Johannes Trithemius 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".[26] 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".[26] Trithemius also believes that there are works that are not being printed but are worth being copied.[27]

The role of books and transcription in monastic lifeEdit


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".[28]

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,[22] 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, holding the lantern aloft when the abbot read, and approving all material to be read aloud in church, chapter, and refectory.[29]

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".[30]

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 alsoEdit


  1. Christopher De Hamel, Scribes and Illuminators, (Toronto: U Toronto Press, 1992), 36.
  2. Scriptorium, from the medieval Latin script-, scribere (to write), where -orium is the neuter singular ending for adjectives describing place.
  3. "Since the early medieval days of the foundling monastic orders, the library and the scriptorium had been linked. for the most part, the library was a storage space. Reading was done elsewhere." (Christopher S. Celenza, "Creating Canons in Fifteenth-Century Ferrara: Angelo Decembrio's "De politia litteraria," 1.10" Renaissance Quarterly 57.1 (Spring 2004:43-98) p. 48
  4. Janet Charlotte Smith, "The Side Chambers of San Giovanni Evangelista in Ravenna: Church Libraries of the Fifth Century" Gesta, 29.1 (1990):86-97)
  5. E. Mackowiecka, The Origin and the Evolution of the Architectural Forms of the Roman Library (Warsaw) 1978, noted by Smith 1990.
  6. Barbara A. Shailor, The Medieval Book, (Toronto: U Toronto Press, 1991), p.68.
  7. Christopher De Hamel, Scribes and Illuminators, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 5.
  8. British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts: Book of Hours, Use of Sarum (the 'Hours of the Umfray Family'), Paris, c 1420. Solane Mss 2468
  9. Aliza Muslin-Cohen, A Medieval Scriptorium: St. maria Magdalena de Frankenthal series Wolfenbüttler Mittelalter Studien (Wiesbaden) 1990.
  10. Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter 57,, accessed 2 May 2007.
  11. Fr. Landelin Robling OSB, Monastic Scriptoria,, accessed 2 May 2007.
  12. A.C. Murray, After Rome's Fall, (Toronto: University Toronto Press, 1998), pp. 262, 283.
  13. An undated Cistercian ordinance, ranging in date 1119-52 (Załuska 1989) prescribed literae unius coloris et non depictae ("letters of one color and not ornamental"), followed with varying degrees of literalness.
  14. The twelfth-century scriptorium of Cîteaux itself and its products, in the context of Cistercian scriptoria, have been studied by Yolanta Załuska, L'enluminure et le scriptorium de Cîteaux au XIIe siècle (Brecht:Cîteaux) 1989.
  15. George Haven Putnam, Books and their Makers During the Middle Ages, (New York: Hillary House, 1962), 405.
  16. C.H.Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, Ed.2 (London & New York: Longman, 1989) 162.
  17. Montalembert, The Monks of the West from St. Benedict to St. Bernard, vol. 6, (Edinburgh, 1861-1879) p.191.
  18. Montalembert, The Monks of the West from St. Benedict to St. Bernard, vol. 6, (Edinburgh, 1861-1879) p.194.
  19. Cassiodorus, Institutes, I, xxx
  20. James O. O'Donnell, Cassiodorus, University of Californian Press, 1979. Postprint online (1995),, accessed 2 May 2007.
  21. Newton 1999:3; the scriptorium is fully examined in Francis Newton, The Scriptorium and Library at Monte Cassino, 1058-1105, 1999.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter 48,, accessed 2 May 2007.
  23. Geo. Haven Putnam, Books and Their Makers During the Middle Ages, (New York: Hillary House, 1962), p.29.
  24. Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter 52,, accessed 2 May 2007.
  25. Fr. Landelin Robling OSB, Monastic Scriptoria,, accessed 2 May 2007.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Johannes Trithemius, In Praise of Scribes (de Laude Scriptorum), Klaus Arnold, ed. (Lawrence, Kansas: Colorado Press, 1974), p.35.
  27. Johannes Trithemius, In Praise of Scribes (de Laude Scriptorum), Klaus Arnold, ed. (Lawrence, Kansas: Colorado Press, 1974), p.65.
  28. Quoted in: Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work. Tauris Parke, 2001. Page 155.
  29. Fassler, Margot E., "The Office of the Cantor in Early Western Monastic Rules and Customaries," in Early Music History, 5 (1985), pp. 35, 40, 42.
  30. O'Donnell, James O. (1979 - Postprint online (1995)). "Cassiodorus". University of Californian Press. Retrieved 2 May 2007. 

Further readingEdit

  • 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. The Dark Ages. London : J.G.F. & J.Rivington, 1844.
  • 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.

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