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
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
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
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
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
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
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 . . .
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Episode | Search Episodes |