Monastic Scriptoria

and the

Transmission of Texts

[Scribe at work]

Key Players Today

Hill Monastic Manuscript Library (SJU, Collegeville, MN)

Arca Artium, and the Saint John's Bible (Collegeville, MN)

Institut de Recherche et d'Histoire des Textes (CNRS, France)

The Labyrinth. (Georgetown U, Wash., DC)

Resource Links and Overview

Beneteau, D. P. The Paleography Project (Seton Hall)
Bodleian Library. Early Manuscripts at Oxford (Imaging Project)
Book, Manuscript, and Printing History (miningco)
Book Arts Links (CBBAG)
British Library. Lindisfarne Gospels (698-721 A.D.)

Association for the Calligraphic Arts (founded 1997)
Calligraphy and Illumination (John Neal, bookseller)
Calligraphy Books at
Calligraphy Centre (Artists of the Written Word)
The Calligraphy Convention
Calligraphy Links (CBBAG Book Arts)
Historic Calligraphic Fonts (commercial site)
Iron Gall Ink Corrosion website (European Commission on Preservation and Access)
Jackson, Donald. The Calligraphers Art * The Story of Writing
Letter Arts Review (John Neal, bookseller)
The Painted Word (Thomas Ingmire, scribe)
Society of Scribes and Illuminators (UK)
Sources for Period Illuminations and Supplies (Alicia Langland, SCA)
Vellum Gallery of Calligraphy, Illumination, and Letter Arts * Web Resources
Georgetown University. The Labyrinth. Manuscripts
Hudleston, G. Roger. "Scriptorium." Catholic Encyclopedia, 1906-12.
Hurlbut, J. DScriptorium - Digital Manuscript Image Project (BYU)
Irvine, Martin. Technology and Culture of the Manuscript Book
Koninklijke Bibliotheek. Manuscript highlights (The Hague, NL)
Leaves of Gold: Treasures of Manuscript Illustration from Philadelphia Collections.
Liège, l'Université de. Bibliothèque. Miniatures des manuscrits (Carmélia Opsomer et Claude Coibion)
Medieval Manuscript Leaves (51 leaves; Cary Collection)
Millar, Heather. "The Electronic Scriptorium" Wired 4:8 (1996; Today, monastics are again preserving our collective memory - using keyboards and computers.) (electronic books)
O'Donnell, J. Avatars of the Word: from Papyrus to Cyberspace (U Penn)
-------. Paleography
Oxford University. Early Printed Books Project (1995-97)
Romanesque Links (© 1997- by Cosei, France)
The St Albans Psalter (U. Aberdeen)
Seid, Thomas W. Interpreting Ancient Manuscripts (Brown U.).
Stanford University. Library. Medieval Manuscripts
Stewart OSB, Columba. "The Word of God, Living and Active Among Us," The Art of Biblical Texts and Images, Arca Artium exhibition, 9 January - 2 March, 2000
Trinity College, Dublin. Book of Kells, three "carpet" pages of Celtic design (760-820 A.D.)
University of Virginia. Special Collections
Verheyen, Peter. Book Arts Web (Different by design)


The high point of Benedictine, monastic scriptoria coincided, more or less, with the flowering of that most chaste and definitive style, Romanesque (1100-1200 A.D.) Then, as recently, there was a great deal made of the twilight of the tenth century, 999-1001 A.D., and the dawn of a new millennium. The patient, modest and accomplished Benedictine scribes at Einsiedeln Abbey, for example, all weathered it through that monastic scriptorium's highly productive two-hundred-and-fifty year history (950-1200). Sacred Scripture was always at the heart of every monastic scriptorium. Monastic scribes contributed beyond measure to the preservation and dissemination of the Bible.

[a Black Monk scribe] Strictly monastic scriptoria that flourished in the ninth through twelfth centuries became less significant with the "gentrification" and clericalization of Benedictine cloisters succeeded by the rise of cities, the mendicant orders and the earliest universities. By the fourteenth century the making of manuscripts had become a lucrative secular occupation.

The late medieval and early Renaissance production of the textually and icongraphically standardized Books of Hours usually took place in a secular Master's scriptorium. The pretty pages of the popular imagination owe their charm, delight and interest solely to decoration. The predictable all but memorized "text" of the Parvum Officium B.V.M. (Little Office), serves as the formal cause of the material, artistic expression. The highly accomplished, well-organized scribes and illuminators worked in a non-monastic, possibly pious, lay atelier that catered to an insatiable, aristocratic thirst for their decorative and luminous productions.

[Radbert, scribe.]

The same kind of repetitive and predictable cycle of subjects, however exquisitely executed, marks the output of secular scribes in Bologna who produced the richly illuminated manuscript books of Gratian and Justinian, found today all over the world, for the law school and its students. Here too, the "form" of text surrounded by notes, glosses and commentary delimits the proscenium, so to speak, for the able scribe's imagination and creativity.

Although some Benedictine scriptoria, such as Trithemius' at Sponheim, survived and even flourished into the Age of Printing, in general, during the Late Middle Ages and beyond the Benedictines served scholarship and the transmission of texts by staying put (stabilitas loci) and preserving their precious treasures of pen and ink in ever more secure and elaborate architectural environments of monastic stewardship (conversatio).

The major Benedictine contribution to the transmission of texts, closer to our time, was that of the French Congregation of Saint Maur during the reign of Le Roi Soleil (1643-1715). "To the great body of students, indeed, the Maurists are best known by their services to ecclesiastical and literary history, to patrology, to Biblical studies, to diplomatics, to chronology and to liturgy." In doing so they collated and compared those manuscript texts that had been produced in the medieval monastic scriptoria and invented Diplomatics, the science of dating manuscripts and judging their authenticity.

The role of the Carolingian scribe in moving Western Civilization from an oral to a literate state is hotly debated, and the proper role of the modern electronic scribe in the transmission of texts is questioned.

Contributors to the Benedictines' web site participate in the scribe's ancient monastic traditions of hospitality, humble service and liberal arts education.


Bibliography (Labyrinth, Georgetown).

The Benedictines and the book: an exhibition to commemorate the fifteenth centenary of the birth of St. Benedict A.D. 480-1980. 100 slides (Rolls 320.1-10; 321), and 1 printed catalog. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1980.


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Bro. Richard Oliver OSB, MA
Monastic Webweaver
Saint John's Abbey
Collegeville, MN 56321-2015
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