The Rule of St. Benedict...“contained a specific instruction that a certain number of hours in each day were to be devoted to labour in the scriptorium. The monks who were not yet competent to work as scribes were to be instructed by the others.”
Notwithstanding the Church’s active participation, the production of knowledge
remained parochial. The copying of books
was also slow, tedious, and very time-consuming; it took years for a scribe to
complete “a particularly fine manuscript with colored initials and miniature
art work.” When Bishop Leofric took over
the Exeter Cathedral in 1050, he found only five books in its library. Despite immediately establishing a
scriptorium of skilled workers, his crew managed to produce only sixty-six books
in the twenty-two years before the
bishop’s death in 1072. Likewise, although the Library of Cambridge
University had a remarkable collection of 122 books in 1424, it “labored for a
half-century to increase the number to 330.”
To make the copying task even more difficult, the working conditions in monasteries were “far-from-productive.” For instance, “[t]he weather might be uncomfortable, the light poor..., and the text difficult to read or tedious to contemplate.” In addition, monks had to “concentrate on material they [might] not have been interested in—or even understood,” and they often feared that they would make an error or would not be able to complete a given work within the specified time. Under these conditions, it is, therefore, no surprise that monks sometimes jotted remarks about their frustration and relief in the margins, or the colophons, of their manuscripts. Examples of these remarks included “Thin ink, bad vellum, difficult text,” “Thank God, it will soon be dark,” and “Now I’ve written the whole thing: for Christ’s sake give me a drink.”
Because the monks focused on the process, rather than the contents, it was not uncommon to find them writing over materials on the same parchment or copying “useless texts in illegible scripts.” After all, the goal of such writing assignments was not to produce or preserve knowledge, but rather to keep their hands and minds busy and away from sins or idle thoughts. By the twelfth century, towns emerged, and communities grew in size and wealth. As a result of the spread of literacy, the demand for books increased dramatically, and a large number of new texts appeared. “[M]onastic libraries [soon] found it more and more difficult to keep their collections up to date, and they began employing secular scribes and illuminators to collaborate in book production.” Meanwhile, schools became independent from cathedrals, to which they were originally attached, and guilds of lecturers and students gathered to form universities. With the changing lifestyle and the emergence of new educational institutions,
[i]t became more and more common for people to want to own books themselves, whether students seeking textbooks or noble women desiring to own beautifully illuminated Psalters. By 1200 there is quite good evidence of secular workshops writing and decorating manuscripts for sale to the laity. By 1250 there were certainly bookshops in the big university and commercial towns, arranging the writing out of new manuscripts and trading in second-hand copies. By 1300 it must have been exceptional for a monastery to make its own manuscripts: usually, monks bought their books from shops like anyone else, although this is not quite true of the Carthusians or of some religious communities in the Netherlands.
As universities began to rely on scribes to produce and reproduce texts, supervision by the university faculty became necessary. Ordinances, therefore, were developed “to regulate the work of the copyists, to lay down the minimum requirements of formal presentation and substantial correctness, and to prescribe the selling price of duly certified copies.”....
“The English book trade...developed not around the universities, as on the Continent, but in London,
where the stationers formed a guild as early as 1403.” This guild was known famously as the
Stationers’ Company.... Despite the professional growth, medieval
scribes continued to be treated as mere laborers.... “The
average scribe in the later Middle Ages...had to work three
to seven days for the sum earned in one day by a common foot-soldier slogging
through Scotland in King Edward’s army.”
Nevertheless, the commercial book trade continued to flourish in major European cities, and the number of scribes and illuminators increased substantially as a result. “By the late thirteenth century in Paris (a century later in England)...[t]he names of scribes, illuminators, parchment-makers and binders...[can be found] in tax records, though few names can be linked with surviving books.”
Hat-tip to Medievalists.net.
Image: The Monk Eadwine; c. 1150 Illumination on parchment, 457 x 330 mm; Trinity College, Cambridge.
The monk Eadwine, the prince of scribes (as the inscription calls him) is shown in this mid-twelfth-century portrait in a luxury glossed Psalter written at the cathedral priory of Christ Church, Canterbury. Eadwine is working with a pen and a knife together.