Bede is an artist with a long time interest in monastic history.
Perhaps you have admired an exquisitely illuminated manuscript at close range. You may have enriched your mind with the works of Aristotle, Plato, and St. Augustine. Such treasures remain for us to enjoy today largely through the diligent labors of monastic scribes and artists of the so-called Dark Ages and later Middle Ages. The rich cultural heritage inherited from the Greeks and Latins as well as the treasures of the Church Fathers were preserved and disseminated through monastic centers. The monastic scriptorium, or the place where manuscripts were produced, has five key features.
1. The First Successful Assembly-Line Production
Long before Henry Ford organized the production of cars in an assembly-line fashion, the medieval monastic scriptoria understood its value. As there were multiple stages involved in the production of just one manuscript, monks and nuns learned and perfected the division of labor. Each stage involved specialized craftsmanship, even to the selection and sharpening of quills.
As the plan of St. Gall's monastery indicates, the monk scribes generally were gathered into one room. While there is evidence of some scribes working in the solitude of their cell, they were nonetheless part of a larger team. Some monks worked as calligraphers while others had charge of the artistic miniatures that accompanied the text. Still others had charge of reviewing, collating, or binding.
The monk in charge (or nun in a convent), was called the armarius. This individual had charge of the writing materials, such as quills, ink, and parchment; he also distributed materials as needed along with specific instructions. He checked and edited the manuscripts and in general managed the whole operation. The scriptorium was often adjacent to the library, which was known as the armarium. This word means cupboard, but it is also related to the word armory because books were seen as an essential element in the so-called spiritual warfare. It was therefore a common proverb in monasteries that, claustrum sine armario est quasi castrum sine armamentario (a monastery without a library is like a fortress without an arsenal).
Elsewhere in the monastery, monks prepared the parchment leaves from the skins of cows, goats, or sheep. This was a highly skilled craft in and of itself. The monastic scribe learned his trade over several years before he gained full proficiency.
2. Copying Books Was a Form of Education
While the monk methodically copied ancient texts, he naturally absorbed the material. This was an important form of education through the middle ages. The Abbot Trithemius indicates how copying helped educate the monk in his treatise, In Praise of Scribes:
As he is copying the approved texts he is gradually initiated into the divine mysteries and miraculously enlightened. Every word we write is imprinted more forcefully on our minds since we have to take our time while writing and reading.
— Abbot Trithemius
As St. Benedict permitted his monks to read the Greek and Latin classics such as Cicero, Plato, and Aristotle, more books were needed. Hence, erudition grew apace with the spread of monasticism. The chief books were the Bible, in particular, St. Jerome's Latin Vulgate Bible, as well as the commentaries and letters of early Church Fathers. In addition, works by Aristotle, Cicero, Lucan, Pliny, Statius, Trogus Pompeius, and Virgil were commonplace in monastic libraries, as indicated by Abbot Alcuin, Charlemange's chief scholar.
Mature scribes and monks thus became highly educated persons. This in turn caused monasteries to become important learning centers. The European educational system emerged from the monastery and cathedral schools. This was in part due to their fine libraries, but also through educated monks. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, attended a monastic school as a child.
3. Monastic Scriptoria Helped Spread Civilization
Missionary monks spread divine revelation and civilization across the continent. These efforts required the use of essential texts. Paleontologist Christopher de Hamel says, As early parties of missionaries moved across northern Europe preaching to heathen tribes, they offered literacy and a civilization founded in Judea and polished in Rome. Their books were the tangible proof of their message. They exhibited them, read the services from them, and taught civilization from them.
The following video reveals something of the labor intensive efforts in making a manuscript.
The classically educated Roman convert, Cassiodorus (c.485-c.580), who founded the monastery of Vivarium on his family's estate in southern Italy, understood the value of copying texts. He says, By reading the Divine Scripture he [the monk] wholesomely instructs his own mind and by copying the precepts of the Lord he spreads them far and wide. Abbot Trithemius adds,
The monks of old zealously copied books. They knew that this activity was particularly pleasing to almighty God who wishes that we learn his will and do it and carefully observe his instructions. But we would never know his will had not the zeal of the scribes put it into writing. Scribes, therefore, are the heralds of the divine will which they have handed to us through the visible written word.
— Abbot Trithemius
In consequence of this understanding, monasteries became cradles of missionary work. The Irish monks, for example, founded some one-hundred and fifty monasteries outside their own country. Unlike the typical Benedictine who remained in his monastery, Celtic monks set about spreading the Word through preaching. Manuscripts were indispensable to this effort.
Before the invention of the printing press, books were rare and expensive due to the time involved in production. While monasteries later sold manuscripts to help support the community, it was a form of devotion to disseminate texts across the continent. Cassiodorus comments, Every work of the Lord written by the scribe is a wound inflicted on Satan because the monk not only grows in personal knowledge but spreads that knowledge far and wide.
4. Manuscript Illuminations Gave Birth to Artistic Culture
The exquisite illuminations that we admire so much today were an essential element to manuscripts. Each monastery had skilled artists, often highly imaginative ones, who put all of their skill into beautifying the text. There was also an important cross-cultural transmission as manuscripts traveled across the land. Through the work of paleography, scholars know that several leading schools of artistic culture emerged from the study of illuminated manuscripts by later artists.
For example, the key figure of Duccio di Bouninsegnia, who helped shape the Italian Gothic, was particularly influenced by both Byzantine and French illuminations. Later still, we find the Camaldolese monk, Lorenzo Monaco, heading the large scriptorium in the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, near Florence. Both he and his student, Blessed Fra Angelico, were important forerunners to the art of the High Renaissance.
5. Monastic Scriptoria Helped Preserve Western Culture
It is due to the diligent labors of monk-scribes, especially from Ireland, that we still possess the heritage of the ancient world, namely, the works of the classical authors as well as the early Church Fathers, such as St. Augustine and St. Ambrose. Ireland was not engulfed in the Dark Ages as was the rest of Europe, which was constantly besieged by invading hordes. As peace was restored and the Celtic monks traveled south, the Carolingian Revival (c.800 A.D.) sprang into being. The Abbot Alcuin, under the patronage of Charlemagne, led this revival which helped preserve the written treasures of earlier centuries.
Thus we can see that the so-called Dark Ages were anything but dark. The monastic scriptorium preserved the rich deposit of ancient culture up to our present day. If you ever visit a museum to see a manuscript up close, it is well to recall just how much devoted labor was involved.
The History of Illuminated Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel, Phaidon Publishers, London, England, 1986
In Praise of Scribes by Abbot Trithemius
This article on the preservation of Western culture by monastic scriptoria
This article on the general history of scriptoria
An article on the influence of manuscripts in Western art
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Bede