Monastic Scriptoria

by Fr. Landelin Robling OSB



From the foregoing, two forms of the scriptorium are already discernible; the large room and the small room. Each has a history of its own; and even their various types have an individual story. Thus, the "carrells" are one type of the small-room scriptorium, characteristic of the Medieval ages, especially in England. In a brief and informative paragraph, Florence deRoover designates the "carrells" as "small, closed closets of wainscot, erected in one of the alleys of the cloisters.4

In order to facilitate reading and writing in the cloister throughout the year, many of the English monasteries, that seldom had special rooms for libraries and scriptoria before the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries, screened off one of the four cloister walks, filled in the window spaces facing the cloister garden with oiled paper, rush mats, or glass, and built several partitions, usually of wood, in front of each window, to protect the scribes from the elements. These small partitioned studies, containing a desk and seat beneath a cloister window were called "carrells."5

The history of the large-room scriptorium may be divided according to an early, middle, and late period. In the early period the term scriptorium was not used; nevertheless a large room where writing took place was discovered by archeologists in the temple scribal-school at Ugarit. One might also conjecture with a good degree of certainty that the great Alexandrian school, whither the renowned scholars of the day flocked, had some such general place for copying and writing in connection with its famous library.

This paper will treat about the scriptorium of the middle period, that is, from the sixth century to the eleventh. Within this period the subject must be limited to the cloister scriptorium, from which the "carrells" seem to be an outgrowth, the result of man's modernizing and comfort-seeking tendency exercised against the severity of climatic conditions. Several authors make the broad general statement that every monastery had its scriptorium.6 In a more conservative way Cranage7 assures his reader that "there is very little evidence of the scriptorium being anywhere else but in the cloister," noting however that in the fourteenth century St. Albans Abbey in England had a special separate building erected and called the scriptorium.



4Monasticism: What Is It? London: Sands and Co. 1898., p. 188.

5 "The Scriptorium" in Thompson, James Westfall, The Medieval Library, Chicago: University Press, 1939, p. 597.

6 O'Connor, op. cit., p. 116; E.C. Kyte, "Monastic Libraries" in National Catholic Educational Association Proceedings, 27; p. 240, N'30; and in Benediktinisches Kloisterleben in Deutschland, Maria Laach, 1939, p. 1624: "Jede Abtei besass ihre Schreibschule, in der unablassig mehrere Moenche Buecher abschreiben, die nam aus anderen Kloistern entlieh, um sie zu kopieren und der eigenen Bibliothek die Abschriften einzureihen."

7 The Home of the Monk, N.Y.: University Press, 1926, p. 4.

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