The Order of Saint Benedict

Monastic Scriptoria

by Fr. Landelin Robling OSB



Writing was considered the equivalent of manual labor. "It was the occupation of writing, and not what was written, that was valued." 16 Early library lists of books copied testify to the contrary, and it might be added that in general what was transcribed was highly treasured; hence, the almost endless multiplication of the Holy Scriptures, and its adornment with the richest illuminations.

Like all else that was done in the monastery, the copying of books had ordinarily only two motives in the system: to provide materials actually needed in the routines of the community, and to serve as busywork for hands and minds otherwise idle. In the first case, the aim was production: in the latter, merely treadmill activity. 17

What monk does not know that his labor has much more meaning than mere drudgery for the sake of a pastime or necessity's demands for another day? The monk has a deeper understanding and a more spiritual motivation for work. "The purpose of labor is the sanctification of the soul. It humbles pride, purifies the heart and, united with prayer, prepares the mind for the thought of the divine to whose service it is vowed."18 Writing as an occupation of the monk was a means towards one end: the sanctification of the whole monk, soul and body.

Montalembert draws his reader's attention to the fact that the rule of St. Ferreol, written in the sixth century, regards transcription as the equivalent of manual labor since it charges that the monk "who does not turn up the earth with the plow ought to write the parchment with his fingers."19 The earliest extant commentaries on the Rule of St. Benedict even imply the labor of transcription as the common occupation. Thus Schroll observes that Paul Warnefrid's and Hildemar's "several brief allusions to the generality of the monks being engaged in writing implies that it was a common occupation, but further information on the subject is lacking in our commentaries."20 A contemporary of St. Benedict, Cassiodorus, delights in this noble task, although it is strenuous and fatiguing:

I admit that among those of your tasks which require physical effort that of the scribe, if he writes correctly, appeals most to me; and it appeals, perhaps not without reason, for by reading the Divine Scripture he wholesomely instructs his own mind and by copying the precepts of the Lord he spreads them far and wide. Happy his design, praiseworthy his zeal, to preach with the hand alone, to unleash tongues with the fingers, to give salvation silently to mortals, And to fight against the illicit temptations of the devil with pen and ink. Every work of the Lord written by the scribe is a wound inflicted on Satan21 (Institutes, I, xxx).

Great as his influence was on literature and its preservation through the scriptorium's transmission to posterity, "Cassiodorus must not, however, be considered the first man to have introduced into monasteries either the copying of manuscripts or the study of the Scriptures;"22 But "it remained for Cassiodorus to make of the monastery a theological school and a scriptorium for the multiplication of copies of Scriptures, of the Fathers of the Church and the commentators, and of the great secular writers of antiquity."23



16 Thompson, op. cit., p. 31

17 de Roover, op. cit., p. 592

18 Schroll, OSB., Sister M. Alfred, Benedictine Monasticism, N.Y.: Columbia U. Press, 1941, p. 86.

19 Monks of the West, London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1861, vol. 6, p. 81.

20 Op. cit., p 125, quoting Paul, p. 377, 397; and Hildemar, p. 458, 484.

21 Quoted by Jones, L.W., An Introduction to Divine and Human Readings, N.Y.: Columbia U. Press, 1946, p. 133.

22 Ibid., p. 25.

23 Ibid., p. 26.

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