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