Of Monks, Medieval Scribes, and Middlemen


Of Monks, Medieval Scribes, and Middlemen

By Peter K. Yu

Michigan State Law Review, Vol.1 (2006 )

Excerpt: In the early Middle Ages, the Church played a very important role in protecting ancient works, and monks were heavily involved in the “reproduction and preservation of the literature that had been inherited from earlier writers,—writers whose works had been accepted as classics.” The Rule of St. Benedict, for example, “contained a specific instruction that a certain number of hours in each day were to be devoted to labour in the scriptorium. The monks who were not yet competent to work as scribes were to be instructed by the others.”

Notwithstanding the Church’s active participation, the production of knowledge remained parochial. The copying of books was also slow, tedious, and very time-consuming; it took years for a scribe to complete “a particularly fine manuscript with colored initials and miniature art work.” When Bishop Leofric took over the Exeter Cathedral in 1050, he found only five books in its library. Despite immediately establishing a scriptorium of skilled workers, his crew managed to produce only sixty-six books in the twenty-two years before the bishop’s death in 1072. Likewise, although the Library of Cambridge University had a remarkable collection of 122 books in 1424, it “labored for a half-century to increase the number to 330.”




To make the copying task even more difficult, the working conditions in monasteries were “far-from-productive.” For instance, “[t]he weather might be uncomfortable, the light poor . . . , and the text difficult to read or tedious to contemplate.” In addition, monks had to “concentrate on material they [might] not have been interested in—or even understood,” and they often feared that they would make an error or would not be able to complete a given work within the specified time. Under these conditions, it is, therefore, no surprise that monks sometimes jotted remarks about their frustration and relief in the margins, or the colophons, of their manuscripts. Examples of these remarks included “Thin ink, bad vellum, difficult text,” “Thank God, it will soon be dark,” and “Now I’ve written the whole thing: for Christ’s sake give me a drink.”

Click here to read this article from the Michigan State Law Review