Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 736: SCRIPTORIUM

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 736.

Today, the new communications technology -- of the 12th century. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The 12th century gave us a new technology. There were no printing presses yet. Books were all hand-written -- copied one at a time. In the late 1100s, book factories called scriptoria showed up in the important monasteries. They were places where experts copied books on a large scale.

Medieval historian Jennifer Sheppard has found forty-some old manuscripts from Buildwas Abbey. Buildwas once stood in Western England, and it must've had a big library. Sheppard is sorting through those remaining books. It's a big job. She hopes she can finish it within her lifetime. Part of her problem is finding out whether Buildwas Abbey produced some of those books in its own scriptorium.

So the detective work begins. It's like reading the book, The Name of the Rose. She analyzes handwriting. She notices how scribes lay out the blue lines that guide their writing. Personalities emerge. Her favorite character is The Flyleaf Scribe.

He's the one with a great loop on his g -- a sweeping tail on his letter x. He shows up first in Cambridge -- later in Buildwas manuscripts. He hovers over books. You see his notations on flyleaves. His hand corrects the work of young scribes. In one book she finds him steering the hands of ten novices. All that kinship and hierarchy suggest a big operation.

But was it located at Buildwas? She finally finds books that Buildwas bought from other scriptoria. But scribes from her scriptorium have added their own notes to those books. Her scriptorium must've been part of Buildwas Abbey.

Sheppard warns us to be skeptical -- even of her own conclusions. Hers is a tricky business. Yet there's little reason to doubt. You see, Buildwas was a Cistercian monastery. The Cistercians were master technologists. They did wonders with water power and agriculture. They defined 12th-century hi-tech.

And this production of books was hi-tech, make no mistake. It brought communication to a new level that lasted until the printing press moved in to replace it. The Cistercians innovated. They invented alphabetical indexing and pagination.

Cistercian scriptoria were good, all right. They created such a money-making business that it spilled over into the lay world. By the year 1250, commercial scriptoria and scribes had taken over. They gathered around universities and made them the new centers of the book trade. The day of monastic scriptoria faded.

So a process had begun. This was the beginning of a long road that led from books that cost years of labor down to books you can now earn in an hour -- working at a minimum wage.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Sheppard, J.M., The Twelfth-Century Library and Scriptorium at Buildwas: Assessing the Evidence. England in the Twelfth Century. Proceedings of the 1988 Harlaxton Symposium, (D. Williams, ed.) Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk: St. Edmundsbury Press, 1990, pp. 193-204.

Rouse, M.A. and Rouse, R.H., Authentic Witnesses: Approaches to Medieval Texts and Manuscripts. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991.

Drogin, M., Anathema: Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. Totowa & Montclair, NJ: Allanheld & Schram 1983.

O quam dulcis vita fuit,
dum sedebamus quieti . . .
inter librorum copias . . .
Alcuin




The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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