Turismo Prerrománico > Art and Culture > The Medieval Miniature > The organization of the medieval scriptorium

The organization of the medieval scriptorium

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With our remembrance and thanks to Diego Alonso Montes, co-author of our book “La Miniatura Altomediecal Española” of which we publish this chapter.

The preeminence of the monastic scriptorium

Throughout our period of study there is a great continuity in the copying of certain works, which can only respond to the permanence of institutions that maintain a constant criterion for their composition, following the old canons that the Church and the culture she guards establish under the criterion of authority in tradition. The closer a work is to the original sources, the stronger it is.

Between the 5th and 6th centuries, the Church became the heiress of the Roman Empire in its dimension of cultural reference and nucleus of civilization. We must remember here that until that moment, some of the fathers of the Latin Church were cosmopolitan provincials who studied in the most prestigious Roman municipal schools, and that these, unfailingly linked to the cursus honorum which endowed “public office” in the city fell when the network of “public officials”, who carried out their duties by financing the cultural activity of the cities with their heritage, disintegrated. These schools were disappearing between the 5th and 6th centuries.

The production of books remained the duty and objective of the Church, which did not devote itself to the task only in the episcopal sees, but also in the cenobios that in many cases will be the quarry of bishops and prelates in the early medieval centuries. The strength of the monasteries vis-à-vis the dioceses is undeniable, which does not prevent any of them from being lavish in the production of books, although it depended solely on the personal commitment of the bishop. The monastery, in change, had greater continuity for the intellectual work. This fact is not due to the urbanization and autarky of the rural region, because in many cases the monastery, attached to the episcopal palace, was the residual sign of urban life. The binomial empty city and isolated countryside is not entirely true. The city slowly decays but retains its fiscal function until the 11th century, when the trend is generally reversed on the basis of the link of reciprocity with the countryside.

Until then the independent foundation prevails over institutionalism because the initial instability of the episcopal sees favors monasticism over the standardized ecclesiastical institution. Here we understand as independent the one that can be the result of the particular donation, not to the modality of lay foundation that is created in some large estates to evade episcopal and tax control. The peculiarity of Hispanic monasticism resided in its earliest diffusion with respect to the rest of the western provinces, for at the beginning of the fourth century the Council of Elvira already pronounced itself on the necessary normalization of a movement that arose in the cities and preferably between the sophisticated and cosmopolitan aristocracy. Western monasticism does not seem to have mimicked its model of the East, where the characteristic figure was that of the commoner man and of singular life, but would have followed the elitist pattern of Hellenistic schools, a difference that will allow a greater interweaving of Western asceticism with the Church. However, in its origin, Hispanic monasticism responds first to the informal model of the circle of friends, than to the community of clergy of perfectly regulated life.

These are the two extremes of the evolution of monastic life. In the Visigoth period we already have references to a certain regulatory work in the proceedings of synods and councils, which do nothing but give some legal coverage to a heterogeneous movement in which there were federations such as San Fructuoso and San Martín de Braga, but also independent monasteries that should have been more numerous.

At the beginning of the repopulation the inertia of the Visigoth period was felt, the monastic constitution of a great order did not prevail, but each monastery used to follow its own rule. The rules of Saint Fructuous, Saint Isidore, Cassian or Saint Augustine were used, but the fundamental thing will be the stiff and decentralized character that the Gregorian reform tried to correct.

It is therefore difficult to recreate the life of the old monasticism in front of the new one, which will henceforth have papal sanction and regulations of European scope. Among the great orders, the production of books will be an important aspect but with variations according to the philosophy of the order. Thus the Benedictines are those who favor the most lavish copy, while the Cistercians abhor the illuminated manuscript, which uses silver, gold, and purple. But the great transformation will come with the mendicant orders, which either by their vocation of study (Dominicans), or by their ideal of poverty (Franciscans) will produce austere works, little or nothing miniadas. From the 10th century onwards, the period of the great foundations, directly dependent on Rome, opened at a time when the papacy and feudal monarchies were in a position to create an institutional fabric. From the XI century the Pope works in collaboration with the Hispanic kings in favor of the establishment of the Benedictine order, with criteria of independence from secular power and standardized regulation.

From another point of view, the emergence of urban life -or better of the feudal city- marks the turning point in a wider diffusion of culture. The monasteries were redoubted for the tradition, while the new municipal schools and the emerging universities give a new impulse to the culture, being in them where one begins to copy even for consumption of the monasteries.

The importance given to the mined codex

We accept here as a basic premise that the illumination of a codex was the slowest and most expensive work, which mobilized more monks into a common goal. We consider it evident that the reward for this work was the ostentation of the power of the monastery, but not in an act of public display, which was not at all possible, but in the private moment of satisfaction for the required effort. The most profusely minced codices were the symbol of divine power, a sacred object of restricted access and revered by the community, which can be seen in the size of some works. The most luxurious manuscripts were of liturgical use, because the celebration of the offices was the climax in which passages were read aloud, during the matins, lutes, vespers and complete.

We should not imagine the most learned studying the works, but taking into account the liturgical regulations, we must compose the image of an office or mass in which the most expensive works to the community were exhibited and read aloud. By this function of the codex, it is logical to think that calligraphy was to be specially cared for. In its preparation the variants of the same letter were simplified, and for a correct identification of the passages required for the occasion the beginning of the text and certain sections were differentiated, which was usually done with red ink. Otro aspecto formal del texto hasta el siglo XI era la continuidad de la escritura, lo cual da idea del ritmo de lectura, ininterrumpido, en letanía, que era el mejor medio de mantener un control sobre el ritmo y la entonación, y aún la forma de hacer extrañamente vibrantes las palabras.

The library

As a luxury object, the codex was kept in a secluded, properly protected and well ventilated room, where the works were housed in a closet to protect them from moisture and other hazards. Such a dependence was always in the noble area of the monastery, in the immediate vicinity of the church. The Visigoth rite stipulated a special ceremony to invest the position of armarius (librarian), which had the functions of intendant and corrector, and it was still he who proposed the texts to be copied, always with the sanction of the abbot.

In these libraries there used to be a reading reserve, which was held on a desk to which the most consulted works were chained. But the reading was exquisitely stipulated, for the monasteries aspired to the balance between manual labor, prayer, and study. Yet not all monks were fit to consult any book, and when and what were perfectly fixed. Normally two to three hours of reading were recommended, which varied in content according to the reader in question and also according to the time of day and even the time of year. It should be remembered that, however lax the rule, the fundamental principle was obedience, which in the first instance meant surrendering to the spiritual direction of the abbot.

Normally, the monastic library had only a closet and one or two reading desks, which suggests that the study was done in free time, which should never be leisure, but a time for meditation and recreation of the facts of faith. The library, by this impulse to ostentation, was lavish in lending to other monastic libraries, for which there was a record of departure, being always necessary the authorization of the abbot or, in the congregations, of the prior and even of the provincial or superior general. But it should not be thought therefore that the loan was rare, despite the distance between some of the monasteries and the bad communications, and even is attested to the life loan. Here, the fame of a copyist could be decisive, because the monastery was not a prison for the senses, but a way of life that tried to develop the faculties of the individual.

The scriptorium

We have spoken of the importance of the position of librarian, who could answer to one or another denomination according to the order to which he belonged, as “sacrist” in the case of the hieronymites, for being guardian of the tabernacle in which the volumes were accommodated. The cathedral councils will also use this term, which refers to the sacred content, since the codices were the material supports that contained the revealed truth. The “sacrist” or “armarius” was the custodian of the works, which remained under lock and key, although the most precious, codices or documents, were kept in the abbot’s chambers. To ensure that no codex was stolen, the file was used to implicate the most trusted monks, having different keys the abbot himself, the librarian and the copyist.

The scriptorium was a dependency subordinate to the library, which did not implies that he was in his immediate vicinity. His condition had to be humble, with the features of the manual workshop. Let us not forget that for illumination it was necessary to make preparations of dangerous manipulation. On the other hand, the rhythm of copying did not depend on the talents or the working capacity of the monks, but rather obeyed the stipulations of the abbot. It was not a serial production, but a work that met specific needs, whether these were a commission from the outside or the deterioration of a work. Very often, the copy conditioned the eventual prestige of a monastery, since the possession of certain works increased its importance.

Thus we have the type desk as a room with the traces of a workshop, which rather than being located in a fixed place, would have several places for the different phases of the elaboration. Bearing in mind the ephemeral nature of many monasteries, we should not assume the existence of a large, professionally thought-out stay, although sometimes the need for a quick copy would require a place for the work of several copyists, they would copy parts of the work without controlling the general sense of their work.

It should not be forgotten that the monastery was a legal person that constantly generated documents, for which a notary was necessary, a man versed in the diplomatic art, requiring precise knowledge of validation and verification, which did not exclude other knowledge, if not more than complemented. Let us remember Florencio, who in spite of his occasional duties as notary of Fernán González, did not fail to be an excellent illuminator.

But apart from the production of documents, scriptoria had the task of copying to preserve ancient knowledge and the whole corpus of spiritual works. For this task there was a division of labour, always under the supervision of the abbot and the librarian, between the copyist, the “rubricator” who minced and copied the capital letters, and the “binder” who bound the volumes. The task of copying and scanning a codex took months, if not years, which was not possible without the collaboration of up to six specialists. The work began with the clarity of the day and was interrupted around nine o’clock, to resume in the early afternoon until sunset. Altogether, about seven or eight hours of strenuous work, since the monk worked not on a desk, but on a tablet arranged on his knees. The main quality demanded of a text was the regularity of the writing, although each typeface contained a particular taste and each copyist exhibited a style, coming to be the case of some very careless that make think of the work of several hands.

That the work was exhausting is made clear in the colophons, where, at times, forgiveness for mistakes is asked and eternal salvation is prayed for after having completed the hard work. Sometimes the copyist makes a simile between his work and the life of the sailor, showing how the end was a true arrival to port.

The monks’ tools were the penna (pen), which was fastened with the right hand, always retaining in the other the rasorium (scraper), necessary to correct the errors or to remove some impurity from the parchment, because the skins, still healed and arranged with prime, preserved their nature. The outer face, the hair side more than enough, and the inner side thinner and without pores.

Given the importance of the word in the Christian religion, the text had more value than the miniature, which was considered a concession and a help for the darker texts, or for others who by their scope of reading contributed with the miniatures to the splendour required in the offices. The image was complementary and the copyist began the work, leaving gaps for the illustrations and even making warnings to the margin about the suitability of this or that trait.

The type codex was the compilation of everything accessible on a theme, the catenae aurea, of which the finished example is the Commentary to the Apocalypse, which despite copying the work of Beato, suffered some additions.

Among the formal and structural conventions we can speak of the beginning of the codex and the ending. In the beginning the content was mentioned with the rubric, and to make reference to what is exposed in the work through an extract, it was entitled with an INCIPIT. In the colophons there was an EXPLICIT where the title of the work was mentioned and the data was generally recorded, sometimes complete, and the acknowledgements.