The Order of Saint Benedict

Monastic Scriptoria

by Fr. Landelin Robling OSB



It may be of some interest to note here some of the home-made ingenious conveniences which Cassiodorus introduced for the scriptorium, such as, "cleverly constructed lamps which preserve their illuminating flames and feed their own fire and without human attendance abundantly maintain a very full clearness of most copious light...," a sundial for bright days and "a water clock which points out the hour continually both day and night...."24

What has Cassiodorus to do with the Benedictine characteristic of the cloister scriptorium? The relationship of St. Benedict and Cassiodorus is widely discussed, while the truth is still veiled. It may be well to note that St. Benedict had written his rule in 529, several years prior to Cassiodorus' founding of the monastery at Vivarium, between 532 and 552.25 A more thorough examination of the sources common to both authors will shed light upon this relationship. Cassian (c. 360- 435), who died about a century before them, is the greatest of these sources. Whether or not the same rule of life was followed, the monks of St. Benedict and of Cassiodorus were of one spirit in so far as they regarded inactivity and idleness as "the enemy of the soul."

St. Benedict's activity or labor, whether physical or mental, is outlined by the immediate conjoining sentence: "and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading" (c. 48). He defines manual labor as "quod necessarium fuerit" even to "the gathering of the harvest." The number of hours assigned to reading and study, and the distribution of a book to each monk at the beginning of Lent are strong arguments indicating a necessity for the transcription of manuscripts and books. In his introduction to the Holy Rule, Cardinal Gasquet states that:

The necessity of supplying books for public and private reading would show that St. Benedict, although he does not expressly mention it, intended monks that were capable of writing and illuminating to be employed in this ways which subsequently proved of the greatest service to European civilization by multiplying books in the scriptoria of the monastic houses, and thus preserving to our times the literature of classical ages and the works of the early Fathers of the Christian Church.




24 Institutes I, xxx, quoted from Jones, p. 134-135.

25 Op. cit., note 8, p. 22. G.H. Putnam, Books and Their Makers During the Middle Ages (N.Y.: Putnam's Sons, 1896-97), p. 10, sets the earlier date at 531.

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