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Working In the "Scriptorium"

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Books before the invention of printing, were immensely valuable and precious things. The scriptorium's activity was a sacred one as the scriptorium, physically, was located at the center of the monastery. The plan of St-Gall was to do that also. The scribes accuracy was to have the liturgical books holding no faults so the priest was to be able to read them without troubles during the mass. Illuminations first appeared in the Palace' scriptorium and illuminated books are those the rulers gave like a gift. Alcuin and Theodulf were reluctant to such illustrations which distracted priests. The desertion of papyrus roll to the benefit of the current form of books, or 'codex,' was a important innovation in the terms of the history of intellectual life. As until now they needed to take notes that the text be read by a slave, the codex now allowed to read and take notes at the same time. With the tendencies of the era, that also allowed to a private dialogue between text and self along with silent reading invented by Benedectines. Copying books was difficult and a king of ascese. Scribes were writing using their knees, a plank or a table. About all of the Antiquity' writers known nowadays to us, came from 8,000 Carolingians manuscripts

The books production, in a monastery, works through a whole of functions and craftsmanships. It's directed by the "armarius", among his other duties. The "armarius" is the most important dignitary in the monastery after the abbot, the prior and the under-prior. Due to his multiple tasks, the "armarius" may delegate the supervision of the monks' work to a "magister", or "praeceptor", or a "corrector". The copy of the books takes place in a specific location where the work about the books and their storage occur. The term "scriptorium", for this location, does not appear before the plan of the abbey of Saint Gall and it will not be of current use until the 11th century. The word "scrinium" was likely more used. There are no standards for such a room. Generally, the Benedictine monks were using a large, unique room. On the other hand, as some dozens or so monasteries could dedicate their scriptorium to an important and prestige production, most of the others produced books for their own needs only. The library, in a monastery however were subjected to hazards which could occur to it. But in case of plunder, for example, monks always took with them when they were fleeing, beyond the relics of a founder -if any- and sacred vessels, five fundamental books. The 'Liber bonorum', a list of donations made to the abbey, the book of fundation, which related the latter, the book of burials (the list of persons who had wished to be buried in the monastery's church), the Catalog of Abbeys and, at last, the Obituary, or the list of the death of monks. Once the time of troubles passed, or the monks obliged to settle in a new location, any monastery, from those basic books, could easily revive

What Writing Support Materials Are Used?

Three writing support materials are used at the Carolingian times: wax tablets, papyrus, and parchment. Was tablet are grooved wooden -or ivory- planks where a layer of wax is poured into. The wax is black, brown, green, or red in color. Wax tablets are used to write down various transitory texts within the activity of the scribes (minutes, drafts) or within other works (accounts, exercises). The writer uses a metal or bone stiletto, the tip of which being flattened and used to clean the wax for a renewed use. Most was tablets are working by a minimum of two ("dyptiques"), up to form whole books. Papyrus, as far as it is concerned, had been in use since the highest Antiquity. It had been invented in Egypt during the 3rd millenium B.C. It still in use in the monasteries until the 11th century because of its easiness of use. Under the name of "carta", it's used for works like the genealogies or the chronicles. The papyrus keeps to be packaged into a roll. The roll however, at the opposite of what was done in the Antiquity, is uncoiled vertically instead of vertically. The roll is now called "rotulus", instead of "volumen". The roll's length no more reaches 10-12 yards like in Rome... To write unto the papyrus, the scribe uses a "calamus", that is a split reed. Parchment is beginning to be of a general use by the 8th century only. This support became really useable in Pergamon in the 2nd century B.C. -in a period of blocade there of the papyrus, as it's animal skin prepared to receive writing. Goats, goat kids, and sheeps mostly provide for parchment. A sheep yields two 1.6 by 1.1-foot sheets, as abbeys are raising their own cattle. Hence the book, in these times, is a costly product. And much more, as the Carolingian era is fond of large books (one 400-sheet Bible may need 200 sheeps!). Parchment is used on both sides and it's very resilious, even against insects. At the difference of the papyrus used in rolls, parchment is used under the form of the "codices". A "codex" is just a book, that is folded sheets -which are quires- sewn together. Palimpsest, at last, is reused parchment. The previous text is erased as deemed obsolete or even without interest, or because of shortage or cost. 103 palimpsests, of them 45 texts of the Antiquity, are already found between the 6th and the 10th century. Paper, this other support, had been learned by the Arabs from the Chinese, as the Arabs brought it into Spain. The paper spread slowly only in Europe, as its extreme cost made that one continued to use parchment mostly

What Tools are Used to Write?

Calamus and quill pens, black ink, a table or a writing device, here are the tools of the scribes. Calamus, as already mentioned is a split reed, the tip of which is cut in the form of a pen, with a metal plate pushing on the body on one hand, and on the pen of the other, to retain the ink. The quill pen is made from a bird's feather, a goose most of the time. It's one of the 5 flight feathers of the bird's wing. It's prepared in a specific way to become hardened, as the upper part is cut away as are the barbs along the shaft, just letting a somewhat triangular form. The other tip is cut in the form of a pen, with a central cut allowing for the ink. The larger this central cut, the broader the script. Quill pens and calamus need to be re-cut frequently. Hence the scribe uses another accessory for his work: a penknife or a small knife. The knife is used too to correct errors of script, as it allow to sratch the parchment. A ruler allows the copist to draw the lines onto which he's writing and which allow too to draw the space dedicated to the text and the one dedicated to the illuminations. Copists sometimes use a razor too or a hone pounce stone to suppress the imperfections of the parchment. Inks are dark (brown, grey, red, or russet-red). Inks are made according to various processes. Most common, in the West, are linking carbon -a black pigment derived from a burned product- and a binding product, like tree-gum, oil, egg-white or gelatin. The ink thus processed turns into a solid as the copist, to use it, just dilutes it into water, just like those Chinese ink-sticks. Lampblack (with a liant) or iron salts and metallic tannics may be used too. The metal-gallic ink -which links iron with gallnuts tannics- is used too from the 7th century onwards. The ink for the lettrines, the initials or some passages of the text, which are red most of the time (hence the passages are called 'rubrics' -from Latin 'ruber', or 'rubrus', 'red'), are made from organic pigments from vegetal or animal origin, with a liant and a liquid. The ink is mostly stored into a bull's horn -which one places into a hole of the inkstand, or an ink-flask. The ink of these times was cooling quickly during the winter months and it had to be warmed back, as heating devices were used to dry the ink off when the weather was wet

The Whole Manufacturing Process Of a Book

Lay craftsmen are preparing the parchment skins. The skins are either cut into sheets and stored, or monks themselves cut them. Monks, then, are -or not- folding each sheet. One folded sheet constitutes a quire. A sheet folded into two is an "in-folio", one folded into four an "in-quarto". An in-folio has each part of the folded sheet with dimensions 1.1-1.6 by 08-1-feet. At this stage, one decides what kind of work is going to be done: to copy an existing book or to translate minutes into one book. The "armarius" then draws on the parchment sheets the frames which are allowed to the illuminator, the monk who's going to illuminate the manuscript. The scribe proper (he is called the "librarius" or "antiquarius") draws rules on the parchment to guide writing and to define the locations for the initials and then he begins to work. Initials, which are the letter initiating a text and later to be illuminated, served like marks to the reader as no page numbering was extant at the time. The scribe may be dictated the text. Using a calamus or a quill pen, he writes "hand up", with his forearm out of the work surface. A scribe just writes an average of 4 sheets a day. The production however is function of the number of scribes involved about the same work and, too, of the quality asked for the book. One year was needed for a whole Bible, as 116 days, for example, were for 206 sheets, which is 4½ pages a day, in the case of a canonical collection for which a good calligraphy is needed, with no illuminations. As 35 days for 182 sheets are needed only, which is 11 sheets a day- for a less dedicated version of the Commentary of St. Ieronimus about the Book of Jeremiah. A monk thus could write some thirty books along his life! The Carolingian revival has exalted the function of scribe as, until now, it tended to be attributed to monks unable to perform other tasks -due to their age or to any illness. Scribes might even be illiterate. This might slow the work. An absolute silence was required in the scriptorium. Apprentices, meanwhile, are cutting calamus or feathers, carry the manuscripts or provide the scribes with ink. The work of the scribes is tiresome, as even winter does not interrupt it. The scribe, then, has to go the heating room or the kitchen to warm the ink back -and himself too! Once the writing over -and corrected, and added with its red-ink rubrics by a monk called the "rubricator", the quires are passed to the illuminator (the term of this era for this work is "pictor", "painter" in Latin) who works his illuminations: he draws sketch with a point, then a quill pen and ink. He works from scratch or using a model. Then painting with a brush, contours back with a quill pen to get off the overflows and, at last, gold or paint additions. The quires now possibly pass to the gilder, and the basic work comes to its end. The quires now come to craftsmen who assemble them, put them under a press and sew them. Other craftsmen now apply deep skin upon the wooden boards as accessories may be added, like a reinforced binding, clasps, or bookmarks. And goldsmiths could work luxurious casings or boards in the case of prestige books. Here we are! The book is over! It now may head to the monastery's library

Website Manager: G. Guichard, site Learning and Knowledge In the Carolingian Times / Erudition et savoir à l'époque carolingienne, Page Editor: G. Guichard. last edited: 10/28/2016. contact us at
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