The Order of Saint Benedict

Monastic Scriptoria

by Fr. Landelin Robling OSB



In the cloister the general location of the scriptorium was the north cloister walk, facing the inner quadrangle. We have an example of such a walk here at St. John's, Collegeville. However, only the west half serves as a regular walk or corridor between the lower sacristy and the student hall. With this cloister walk in mind, it is easy to understand that a scriptorium located here would of necessity be a poor apartment, and consequently a source for the many common complaints of the scribes. Since "the task of the copyist was carried on in the open cloister walk, with only such shelter from the elements as the rear wall and the vaulting furnished."8 The scribes, as many marginal notes witness, complained of chilled bodies, numb and stiff fingers, and even frozen ink.

Sometimes this same passageway also served as the library; then, "the books were in closed presses or cupboards, arranged vertically to the wall, so as to get light."9 Perhaps this is why the terms "pluteum" (presses) and "cista" (cupboards) became synonymous terms with scriptorium, as Du Cange indicates. When the scriptorium and the library formed an apartment, the latter influenced the former's location. "When the same chamber was used as library and scriptorium, it was frequently, especially in Irish monasteries, located next to the kitchen or calefactory"10 where the scribes were permitted to warm their benumbed bodies. In these instances the scribes benefited; whereas, when the scriptorium was in an individual apartment, they received less consideration.

The specially assigned writing room may generally be understood to refer to the cell, or small room, scriptorium. Cardinal Gasquet11 remarks in a footnote that "the assignment of a special place for writing, called the Scriptorium, seems to have been rather Cistercianl2 as a general practice, although there was one at St. Gall." In following the distinction of forms, Florence de Roover confirms the former statement, while at the same time she notes what was characteristic of the Benedictines: "in general the large writing room seems to have been characteristic of Benedictine monasteries, whereas the Cistercian and Carthusian orders favored small or individual scriptoria."13 The aforequoted Martyrology passage is an exemplification of this Benedictine mark, and what is more, it allows for an estimation of the size of the scriptorium wherein twelve monks were appointed to copy books. The room's accommodations generally "provided for three to twenty scribes, though twelve was the popular number."14



8 de Roover, op. cit., p. 596.

9 Ibid., p. 595.

10 Ibid., p. 595.

11 The Old English Bible, London: J.0. Nimmo, 1908, p. 37.

12 "In fact, it seems to have been a custom, principally and perhaps exclusively in the Cistercian Order, to grant such cells as a privilege to certain monks for their private study."

13 de Roover, op. cit., p. 595.

14 Ibid.

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