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What is a Scriptorium?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A scriptorium is a room set aside for the purpose of copying books. Most people use the term in the sense of a room attached to the library of a medieval monastery, in which monks would copy books out by hand. With the advent of the printing press, the scriptorium was no longer necessary, as books could be mass-produced on the press.

The history of scriptoria is probably as old as the history of the written world, because as long as people have been writing documents, other people have been wanting to read them. Without multiple copies of a book, manuscript, or record, it would be difficult for people to access the material, as they would have needed to travel to the site where it was stored. By hiring people to transcribe written materials, wealthy individuals and institutions could have their own copies of desirable texts.

By the 3rd century, Christian monasteries were being built with scriptoria or copying niches, and facilities without the space for a scriptorium would encourage monks to copy books in their cells. Evidence seems to suggest, in fact, that most monasteries lacked a full scriptorium, and that such facilities were probably temporary, used at the time the library was being built up and then converted to other uses. Some monasteries, however, made a living from copying written materials, with a member of the staff known as the armarius supervising the duplication of written materials.

In the 13th century, the scriptorium began to pass beyond the purview of the Church. Secular copy rooms emerged in some urban areas, with some freelance copyists working from home. This made written materials even more readily available to the members of the general public who could read. Traveling copyists could also arrange to see written materials in private libraries and collections, staying until their copies were finished and sometimes exchanging access to other books and manuscripts in trade.

When every book was written out by hand, copying a book ate up a substantial amount of time. Scribes and copyists also decorated their work, creating illuminated letters, adding illustrations, and generating lavish covers to protect their finished pieces. Books and manuscripts turned into works of art in a scriptorium, with some monasteries and individual monks becoming known for the high quality of the work they produced. Some very fine examples of manuscripts produced in scriptoria can be seen on display in museums around the world.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By LisaLou — On Sep 16, 2011

Being an avid reader and having a room full of books, I find it hard to imagine the amount of time that went in to hand copying books and manuscripts.

It makes it easier to understand why books were so precious and how the invention of the printing press really changed the world.

It seems like I hardly ever sit down to even write a letter anymore. Even after a few lines my hand is tired of writing.

When I think that they didn't even have all the advantages of bright lighting and nice pens it seems like it would be quite a tedious task.

I think it would be very fascinating to visit an old monastery that had a scriptorium that was used at one time.

By BabaB — On Sep 15, 2011

It's surprising how many of these books that were copied by hand in the medieval age have survived to this day. They were probably stored in damp and cold areas of a monastery or other building, where the paper and ink would be damaged.

Also, especially during the Viking era, there were many attacks on monasteries. The Vikings and other aggressors liked to ransack the monasteries looking for gold and other riches. They often just destroyed everything in sight, including books.

Just think of all the treasures, books, art, and other relics that we don't have today because of the destruction during raids.

By Clairdelune — On Sep 15, 2011

In some movies that I've seen, they have sometimes shown several copyists working in a fairly large room in a monastery. From this article, it sounds like there was just a very small scriptorium for the copyists to work in.

Despite the cramped quarters, they did a beautiful job, making their books into works of art.

I'll bet the head of the monastery's library had strict rules about check out and return. And they probably charged heavily for lost or damaged books!

The actual copying of the book must have been a challenge because the paper they used then was rough and textured. Nothing like the nice smooth paper we have today.

By strawCake — On Sep 15, 2011

@JessicaLynn - Somehow, I think a freelance copyist working at home in the 13th century probably had less distractions to contend with than a freelance writer does these days. After all, time-sucking social networking sites didn't exist back in those days!

I think you would have had to have a lot skill to be a copyist in those days. One of the museums near my old apartment had a pretty extensive manuscript collection and they were just amazing. I can't imagine having enough patience to hand copy an entire book!

By JessicaLynn — On Sep 14, 2011

I'm always so amazed when I think about how books were produced before the printing press. I'm an avid reader and I can't imagine not being able to just buy a new book at a moments notice!

I also think it's kind of cool there were freelance copyists that worked at home making copies of manuscripts. It looks like a lot of people across the ages have found the idea of working at home appealing.

By cloudel — On Sep 14, 2011

The monks used the scriptorium to make copies for royalty and the elite, so the handwriting had to be ornate. Books were so valuable back then, and with all the effort put into them, it’s no wonder. Whatever the rich paid for a book, it couldn’t have been enough.

I saw an informational program on monks working in scriptoriums long ago. The program said that their writing style, while fancy, also served the purpose of saving paper, because the letters were made narrow.

The program mentioned that this beautiful and recognizable style eventually became what we know today as the Gothic font. When the printing press came into being, so did the standardized font.

By seag47 — On Sep 13, 2011

I once saw a manuscript that was made in a scriptorium while I was visiting a museum. I found out that the monk doing the copying didn’t always do the artwork.

Sometimes, the work was divided between the illuminators and the scribes. The scribe often left a space open to be filled in later by the illuminator. He would mark the empty area with a small cursive letter. Generally, this space was at the beginning of a paragraph.

This makes sense when you think about it. Many people have the ability to write letters, but not everyone can draw beautifully. It was best to let each one perform his special skill separately.

By shell4life — On Sep 12, 2011

I would love to see a book that had been copied in a scriptorium. I could really appreciate all the hard work and time that went into it. It would be like observing an artist’s painting but being able to read it at the same time.

The fancy way that monks formed their letters in those days looked like art in itself. I have seen photos of old manuscripts, and a significant amount of time must have went into simply forming each character.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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