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The Evolution of the Book in Italy 101: Medieval Monks


Humanity's infatuation with the written word has echoed throughout the ages. The creation and development of the book was one of the most outstanding achievements in preserving the social, religious, and political values of societies throughout history. These series aim to provide insights into the technologies and cultural context that led to the advancement of the book from the Middle Ages to the Italian Renaissance. Examining the book's function and technologies helps better grasp the mutual influence between society and the written form. The series examines the book's materials, purpose, and values as a knowledge repository and communication channel. It also delves into the development of the printing press, its relationship to literacy, and its impact on the book economy and humanist agenda. Illustrating a shift in form and function of the book from Medieval to Renaissance Italy, this series explores how ecclesiastical and secular use of the written word liberated and enriched culture. It will also provide insight into how the book also served as a reflection of cultural values and ideologies throughout its evolution.

This 101 series is divided into six articles, including:

2. The Evolution of the Book in Italy 101: Medieval Monks

3. The Evolution of the Book in Italy 101: Illuminated Manuscripts

4. The Evolution of the Book in Italy 101: Universities & the Rise of Humanism

5. The Evolution of the Book in Italy 101: Rise of the Printing Press

6. The Evolution of the Book in Italy 101: A New Age of Literature

Medieval Monks and the Making of a Manuscript

The development of the codex in the ancient Mediterranean provided a strong foundation for the advancements in writing technologies used by monasteries after the collapse of the Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages, parchment had officially achieved its triumph as chief writing material for manuscript, with monasteries at the pillar of book production. Manuscripts in the form of the codex maintained its status as an invaluable repository of knowledge that transcended space and time, each a reflection of the situation in which it was produced. But while ancient Greek and Roman book production was centered around trade, the manuscripts of the Middle Ages were rapidly copied and produced by monasteries with the intention of spreading and teaching Christianity.

The reproduction of manuscripts in the Middle Ages by monks is largely a reflection of the goal of the monastic way of life, which is devoted to a life of prayer. The foundation of the medieval monastic system in which the reproduction of manuscripts thrived is rooted in the Rule of Benedict, written in Monte Cassino, Italy, in the early to middle sixth century. The Rule of Benedict is the foundation of many monastic orders, and is meant to serve as a guideline to the daily lives of monks (Butler, 1910). There was significant effort towards the memorization of scripture; it served as a display of piety towards God, but was also practical as it would have allowed the monks to pray more easily as needed throughout the day, whether in private or public (Innes, 1998). Monks took on a life led by the “precepts of scripture, from which were derived the rules of the monastery” and “he needed to take the words of scripture to heart, that is, to internalize them through memorization and the prayerful rumination of meditation” (Peterson, 2010, p. 329). Thus, the memorization of scripture was inextricably bound with the monk’s ability to display and act on his devotion towards God. Throughout the monasteries were numerous bibles and ecclesiastical books that had been placed around the chapels, dormitories, and anywhere else the monks would walk or meditate, with many copies provided in a smaller format for personal use in study and prayer.

Building off of the knowledge and skills of ancient technologies, medieval monks began to produce bibles and ecclesiastical texts of great beauty an achievement that proved invaluable in the preservation of Greco-Roman literary culture. During the fifth and sixth centuries, literacy declined as a result of the collapse of the Roman Empire, which threatened to eradicate the texts of the classical world. Monasteries became a sanctuary for literary reproduction, with monks at the center taking on the roles of scribes and bookbinders. With the strong desire to continuously learn and transfer knowledge of God and scripture, manuscripts became increasingly important in the role of spreading faith as scribes rapidly copied sacred texts as a tangible means of instilling a life of devotion in others (Corbari, 2013).

Figure 1: Illustration of Saint Benedict's Montecassino (n.d.)

A significant number of manuscripts written by monasteries were in the Carolingian minuscule, which became prominently established in the eighth century. The font allowed for monastic scribes to increase uniformity and clarity, with legible handwriting as it was inspired by the desire for correct and easily read copies of sacred texts. The Carolingian minuscule displayed an elegant roundness of the letter, with adequate spacing and capital letters. The new typeface presented itself as a “contrast of light and heavy strokes, the limbs of tall letters being clubbed or thickened at the head by pressure on the pen” (Marcos, 2014, p. 48). The Carolingian minuscule font cannot be considered a true invention, but it was rather the result of a slow crescendo, or an improvement upon an old practice that of calligraphy. The adoption of a standardized form of writing coincided with the increased production of written works and the spread of the Christian faith by virtue of monastic centers. Usually an elongated rectangular shape, the medieval manuscript varied greatly in size and was dependent on the book’s purpose and the size of the available parchment hides. (Rouse, 1989).

The development of the new script encouraged the establishment of more monasteries, reassuring their position in the Middle Ages as the source of strength and reproduction of the written word (Rouse, 1989). As a result, it enabled the founding of more monasteries for the reproduction of texts. In the 9th and 10th centuries, the number of monasteries with busy writing centers rapidly increased. (Haraszti, 1938). Manuscripts that were produced in such an institution were more orderly in preparation and execution, and were therefore established as the preferred means of book production, particularly for ecclesiastical texts. Monasteries and abbeys began to copy texts regardless of content, ordering and preserving books that were gathered, largely of ecclesiastical and classical learning.

Figure 2: Image of manuscript using Carolingian Minuscule typeface (n.d.)

Production of manuscripts took place in the scriptorium: the designated writing room built within a medieval monastery where texts were ferociously copied and preserved by scribes. The scriptorium often included a series of separate studies that gave the illusion of privacy, and was always constructed near the library for easy access to texts that needed replication. Every monastic library required various volumes of scripture, liturgical books, and the works of church authorities for worship or instruction, which were to be both studied and copied (Rouse, 1989). Although, it was not unusual for the monks of some monasteries to find refuge in the cloister, or the covered walkways of a monastic courtyard (Gilchrist, 2014).

Each monastery followed its own set of rules, but monastic scriptoriums followed an order of particular care. To limit irreparable loss of valuable manuscripts to fire, candlelight was entirely forbidden, requiring monks to work only in daylight totaling about six hours each day (Diringer, 1986). Also, the scriptorium required absolute silence, and did not allow entry to any non-scribe in an effort to prevent interruption of distraction in the few hours for which they have to work. As a result, a system of gesture communication was introduced as a means for monks to request the necessary book without speaking. If the scribe wanted to consult a book, “he extended his hands and made a movement as if turning over pages”, followed by gestures that would reflect the content of the text in question (Diringer, 1986, p. 32). In a monastic scriptorium, the various stages involved in the making of a manuscript required an elaborate distribution of labor, organized by the head of the scriptorium.

The scriptorium was managed by an armarius, the ultimately responsible for the general management of the scriptorium. He provided desks, parchment, awls, inks, pens, and other supplies. The armarius then assigned tasks to be performed by scribes and rubricators, who added titles, capital letters, decorative elements, and the like (Rouse, 1989). Great consideration was taken into the selection of materials provided for monastic scribes, one of which being a desk with a sloped top. Throughout medieval art, “numerous representations show the scribe sitting before the desk, holding the knife in his left hand to erase or to hold down the sheet, while he writes with the pen in his right hand, often with the index and middle finger on the pen and the other fingers under it, without supporting his wrist on the desk” (Bruckner, 2003, p. 519). The various stages in the copying and making of a manuscript could be carried out successively by one scribe, as they are expected to know every detail of the process in making a manuscript. More often, though, several monks were engaged in the process simultaneously.

Figure 3: Image of an open manuscript (Peter of Poitiers, c. 1300).

In order to copy a text, monks first engaged in a number of small steps to prepare the parchment for use. To begin, they had to cut the parchment into the desired size by a sharp curved knife and a ruler. It was not uncommon for the scribe to take the time to glue tears in the parchment, repair damaged spots or scrape it with a pumice stone to remove grease and ensure a smooth surface (Rouse, 1989). Each sheet is then made into a bifolium, or a sheet for writing that has been folded in half to create two leaves, or four pages. Multiple bifolia of parchment or vellum are placed inside each other to create a quire, thus taking on the form of the codex, which was particularly favored for ecclesiastical books. As parchment and vellum had a flesh or skin side and a hair side, monastic scribes had to ensure the same side of the pages faced one another: flesh to flesh, hair to hair (Bruckner, 2003). Scribes could typically calculate how much parchment would be needed prior to preparation based on the length of the text to be copied. The layout of the text of the bifolium also required prior planning, including details such as whether it would be written in long lines or in columns, or would include special ornamentation or a gloss coating, and parchment was thus prepared accordingly.

Fine punctures called prickings were made at the edge of the sheet at intervals as regular as possible which determined the margins of the page, though they would later disappear when the book was bound and trimmed (Diringer, 2010). To ensure that text was written in straight lines, early medieval scribes used a dry, blunt stylus to imprint lines into the sheet from hole to hole of the prickings, however the use of ink to do so had become more widespread by the 13th century A.D. Vertical and horizontal lines were drawn with a ruler, and proved a tedious task that the most meticulous scribes paid most careful attention to. When this was completed, the scribe could then begin the task of translating his assigned text. (Bruckner, 2003). Most texts were written in two columns on each page, for which the guidelines would have been imprinted accordingly. Only when these tasks have been completed, could the scribe begin to write.

To give ink the proper time to dry, the scribe would copy only the first bifolium recto and verso, right and left pages of an open codex. At the bottom of the last page of each quire, scribes would include various symbols such as Roman numerals or letters as a means of guaranteeing accurate sequencing. The written work is then hung up or set aside to dry. To further ensure the bifolium gatherings remained in proper order, the scribe would pen in a catchword which was the first word or words of the next page. The scribe could only continue when the first folio of the innermost bifolium was dry, and “having recorded the catchword at the bottom of the last verso, the scribe could then take up the second quire, and so on until he had copied the whole text” (Rouse, 1989, para. 4).

Figure 4: Illustration of a monk in a scriptorium (n.d.)

As he was writing, the scribe omitted the parts of text that were meant to be written in a different color ink or required a particular detail, such as titles, capital letters, initials of chapters, and other aspects excluded from the general body of text. It was up to the scribe to leave the adequate space for such details, who made notes in the margins as a reminder of the lettering to be inserted (Rouse, 1989). Many scribes had a habit of signing their completed works with a “personal declaration of fatigue and relief” on the last page (Streissguth, 2003, p. 261), who had identified themselves through a private symbol called a colophon. For other monks, it was “a favorite practice of copyists to add a final wish after the completion of his work: his thanks to God on completing the work, a curse on anybody stealing the book, a request to the reader to remember the copyist in his prayers, etc.” (Bruckner, 2003, p. 844).

When the writing was complete, the text was given to the corrector, who compared it to a written copy of the original work to cross-examine and assure it has been replicated exactly from its original form (Streissguth, 2003). The incomplete portions of the text that required colored ink or special details could then be filled in, typically in a red ink adopted from the ancient Romans. This could be done by the scribe himself, as all scribes were expected to be familiar with every stage of the manuscript making process, but the task was usually given to another. It could have been passed onto the rubricator, who’s role was to add the details and lettering that had been thus far omitted from their respective places within the text, although it was often done by the scribe (Diringer, 1976). When scribes and rubricators had completed their work, the manuscript was sent to the bookbinder. In this final process, the bookbinder would arrange the quires in their proper order, then stitched the innermost fold through the outermost, weaving the sheets firmly together (Diringer, 1976). The quires bound together came to form an arrangement that was essentially the same as the modern day book. To prevent the threads from tearing the parchment at the top and bottom of the spine, a leather strip was added, and sewn all around, forming the headband. This text block is then sewn “into several bands or cords running crosswise at the back with whose help the assembled book was laced to the cover” (Bruckner, 2003, p. 519).

Missale: Fol. 306: Assumption of the Virgin (Caporali, 1420-1503)

Covers made of leather or wood were added to protect more important or valuable books, such as the bible. Wooden covers were made with beech, maple, or oak, and covered with leather, or occasionally fabric, which was dampened and stretched over wooden boards. Once dried, the leather was glued to the wooden board, and an endpaper was attached to the front and back inside cover (Bruckner, 2003). After the assembled book had been attached to the cover, the outer edges were cut or planed smooth. In the later Middle Ages, the edges were then painted or inscribed, especially if the volumes were displayed with the cut edge facing the user. Metal studs or bosses were applied to the outer edges of covers of heavy folio books; because medieval scribes laid books on their sides, the manuscript rested on the studs rather than the cover, protecting the book from scraping or damage (McCormick, 1989). Although there was considerable detail placed in the making of a manuscript, covers were typically rather simple, with the pattern having consisted of flowers or a few lines stamped into the leather when it was damp.

Most scriptoriums emanate from the beginnings of a monastic foundation, and while many monks became accustomed to the Carolingian script, many of the first texts produced by scribes reveal a correlation between their handwritings with the regions from which they were originally founded. Monastic writing centers proved themselves a literary powerhouse largely established as a result of a unified system of writing, but could not eclipse the details and signatures of individual monks. Rather, as it is explained by Brucker (2003):

A peculiarity of the scriptoria that in many monasteries obvious idiosyncrasies developed in the script, in abbreviations, in the punctuation and reference marks, and in ornamentation and cover decoration, so that it is possible to speak of specific schools of copyists and of their peculiar scripts (p. 843).

Although handwriting or script can identify monastic schools or regions, it can rarely identify the scribe individually by name or monastery. The various stages of making a manuscript, or copying of a codex, could be carried out successively by one scribe as they are expected to know every detail of the process in making a manuscript. However, more often several monks were engaged simultaneously in the copying and creation of a manuscript. Thus, the medieval book can rarely identify the individual scribes involved in its creation.

Figure 6: Painting of a scribe copying text. (n.d.)

The significant numbers of manuscripts copied by medieval monks required an incredible level of intricacy and organization, but also an astonishing quantity of parchment. A text of modest size would require the skins of twenty to forty animals, while a lectern bible could consume as many as five hundred (Hackett, 2002). The making of manuscripts in these monastic centers therefore required the employment and services of a great number of countryside men, especially those who reared animals and hides for parchment (Pettegree, 2010).

The scriptoria were the intellectual epicenters of medieval monasteries and responsible for the preservation of classical thought. By virtue of metonymy, the “scriptorium came to designate the cradle of artistic, calligraphic, literary, and scholarly activity of the monastery” (Bruckner, 2003, p. 843). The rise of Christianity and the desire to preserve and share knowledge encouraged the development of the medieval manuscript, with monasteries as the primary means of copying sacred and classical texts. The medieval book was deeply enmeshed in the Christian faith, and served as a powerful vehicle for education. Founded in monastic writing centers, the manuscript ultimately became an art form of its own, that both influenced and reflected the culture of the Middle Ages.

Bibliographical References

Bruckner, A. (2003). Scriptorium. In New Catholic Encyclopedia (2nd ed., Vol. 12, pp. 841-845). Gale.

Bruckner, A. (2003). Book, The Medieval. In New Catholic Encyclopedia (2nd ed., Vol. 2, pp. 515-520). Gale.

Butler, E. C. (1910). The Rule of Saint Benedict. The Journal of Theological Studies, 11(42), 279–288.

Corbari, E. (2013). Lost and Found in Translation: The Heart of Vernacular Theology in Late Medieval Italy. Franciscan Studies, 71, 263–279.

Diringer, D. (1976). The Book of the Middle Ages. In C. Kleinhenz (Ed.), Medieval Manuscripts and Textual Criticism (pp. 27–38). University of North Carolina Press.

Gilchrist, R. (2014). Monastic and Church Archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 43, 235–250.

Haraszti, Z. (1928). Medieval Manuscripts. The Catholic Historical Review, 14(2), 237–247.

Innes, M. (1998). Memory, Orality and Literacy in an Early Medieval Society. Past & Present, 158, 3–36.

Marcos, J.J. (2014). Paleographic Fonts: Fonts for Latin Paleography.

McCormick, M. (1989). Manuscript Books, Binding of: European. In J. R. Strayer (Ed.), Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Charles Scribner's Sons.

Hackett, J. (2002). Monasteries. In J. Hackett (Ed.), World Eras (Vol. 4, pp. 277-280). Gale.

Peterson, H. A. (2010). The Genesis of Monastic Libraries. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 45(3), 320–332.

PETTEGREE, A. (2010). The Book in the Renaissance. Yale University Press.

Rouse, R. H. (1989). Manuscript Books, Production of. In J. R. Strayer (Ed.), Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Charles Scribner's Sons.

Streissguth, T. (2003). Scriptorium. In B. Leone (Ed.), The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of The Middle Ages (pp. 260-261). Greenhaven Press.

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