The Order of Saint Benedict

Monastic Scriptoria

by Fr. Landelin Robling OSB



Just as the Rule of St. Pachomius (ca. 345) prescribes its followers to possess a knowledge of reading and writing, so St. Benedict desires the novice for his profession day to "make a written statement of his promise." "Let him write this document with his own hand; or at least, if he doth not know how to write. let another write it at his request, and let the novice make his mark and with his own hand place it (the promise) on the altar" (c. 58). In a later chapter (67) St. Benedict speaks of the artists of the monastery, to which category the scribe and the illuminators belong. Their work is to be performed not with pride and self-glory, but "cum omni humilitati...ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus."

In his loving paternal solicitude St. Benedict wishes all the necessaries to be within the enclosure, where "the various arts may be plied inside of the monastery, so that there may be no need for the monks to go about outside, because it is not good for their souls" (c. 66). Looking to the monk's eternal welfare by removing the occasion for the vice of private ownership, he explicitly enjoins the Abbot to give them every necessary thing; "namely, cowl, tunic, stockings, shoes, girdle, knife, pen, needle, towel, writing tablet that all pretence of want may be removed" (c. 55). This resembles an earlier chapter (33) where he explicitly mentions the book, writing tablet, and pen:

The vice of personal ownership must, by all means, be cut out in the monastery by the very root. so that no one may presume to give or receive anything without the command of the Abbot; nor to have anything whatever as his own, neither a book, nor a writing tablet, nor a per. nor anything else whatsoever, since monks are allowed to have neither their bodies nor their wills in their own power.

To gain internal composure and a spirit of recollection by keeping worldliness outside of the monastery, "let it not be allowed at all for a monk to give or to receive letters ... without the permission of the Abbot" (c. 54). These several points convince us that some writing was being performed in St. Benedict Is own cloister. But nowhere does he concretely speak of a writing room, although the oratory may have been used for this purpose as we shall see.

Conjectures frequently prove to be a reality. Apartments occupied by several members at one time are mentioned in the Rule. Firstly, the common apartment for the novices where they are to "meditate, eat and sleep... and to be tried in all patience" (c. 58). Then other common "cella" mentioned in the Rule area Oratory, chapter-house, dormitory, refectory, infirmary, and the guest-hall. Only one small or individual call is spoken of, the "cella ostiarii" (c. 66).

At the beginning of Lent the books were brought to the chapter-house from the library for distribution. Did St. Benedict's library also mean or include a writing room? We do not know. The oratory must be considered as a place for silent, reverent prayer. That it was a convenient place for other uses is implied by St. Benedict's warnings: "Let the oratory be what it is called, and let nothing else be done or stored there" (c. 52). What does St. Benedict mean by the verb 'condatur' which translators render 'stored'? This verb has a second meaning 'to compose or write.'26 If this is St. Benedict's meaning, then the abuse is evident.


26 Thesaurus Lingae Latinae, Vol. III, under "condo" shows it to be used as "scribo."

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