|IN THESE DAYS when the world is flooded "with books (in Britain
alone about thirty-five thousand new volumes were published last year
and a further thirty-nine thousand in the United States), it is
difficult to think oneself back into an age when there were not only no
printed books, but very few books of any kind, and when most people
could neither read nor write.
By the Dark Ages of the sixth century AD the barbarian hordes had swept across Europe, destroying both the classical world of Greece and Rome and, to a great extent, the early Christian civilization. At this time nearly all educated men "were in the Church, and indeed our word 'clerk', one who earns his living with a pen, derives from 'cleric', a clergyman.
At that time the standards of peace and security, -without "which it is difficult to achieve progress, were mostly found in the monasteries, where dedicated men led a communal life. The monasteries themselves might be compared to a chain of castles holding the line in a dark and savage land. Most religious houses possessed libraries in -which were preserved not only the Bible and the great texts of Christendom but also, in some fortunate cases, the books that contained practically everything that has come down to us from the ancient world in the way of spiritual teaching, philosophy, literature, history, medicine and science. Our knowledge of the classics is almost entirely due to work done in the scriptoria of Carolingian monasteries.
Our debt to these men is incalculable. Let us now consider how they created these manuscripts. We are used to borrowing or even buying books without difficulty; but in those days a rich man or a wealthy institution would employ a scribe and an illuminator, perhaps for years on end, to write books for them.
Although there was already a flourishing book trade in Oxford by the twelfth century, the only course open to a poor scholar was to buy the necessary equipment and set to work himself. Chaucer's Clerk of Oxenford probably produced the 'twenty bokes, clad in blak or reed' that 'stodd above his beddes heed' in this way — though the thought of -writing out the whole Bible single-handed must have seemed intimidating. Many such humble manuscripts are still in existence.
In the early days, before the thirteenth century, the majority of books must have been -written in monasteries, and especially in Benedictine and Cistercian houses. The really great centres were comparatively few in number; in England at Winchester, St Albans, Canterbury, Durham, Peterborough, Glastonbury and Bury St Edmunds. The scriptorium in a Benedictine house was generally over the chapter-house or, perhaps, the scribes worked in carrels in the cloister, as at Gloucester. Strict rules were applied. Artificial light was forbidden for fear of fire. Absolute silence was enjoined and, to avoid the mistakes that so frequently follow interruption, only the highest monastic officials were allowed to enter the scriptorium. Communication was by signs. If a scribe needed a book he extended his hands and turned over imaginary leaves; a missal was signified by the sign of the cross; a psalter by placing the hands on the head in the shape of a crown (a reference to King David); a lectionary by wiping away imaginary grease fallen from candles; and a pagan work by scratching the body in the manner of a dog.
At first all books were written on vellum (the skin, generally, of sheep, goats or calves), washed, dressed and rubbed smooth. Smaller books or more delicate works were written on the finer uterine vellum, which is the skin of an unborn calf or lamb. Vellum is one of the best materials ever used in book production. It is smooth, white, tough and lasting, the only disadvantage being its high cost.
'How many sheep,' I asked, rhetorically, in the first edition of this book, 'would be needed for a Bible?' The question has since been answered, with Teutonic thoroughness, by Bonifatius Fischer, in the learned introduction to a splendid manuscript facsimile, Die Bibel von Moutier-Grandval (Berne: Verein Schweizerischer Lithographiebesitzer 1970). This is British Museum Add. MS 10456, often known as the 'Alcuin Bible', since it was once claimed, by a vendor who hoped to sell it to the King of France, to be the Bible that Alcuin produced for the coronation of Charlemagne. Today, Fischer argues, the sheet of vellum derived from a full-grown goat or sheep measures 100 x 55 centimetres; but the sheet of vellum from a 'half-year' animal will be only 84 x 45 centimetres — and animals were probably smaller in the ninth century. A book the size of the 'Alcuin Bible' would need sheep that had been kept alive through the winter by stable-feeding (Stallfutterung), which shows that the monks of Tours, or their tenants, were good agriculturalists. Each Bible would require from 210 to 225 sheep — and this would not include animals that were diseased or had been injured. From the first fifty years of the ninth century we have records of forty-six large Bibles and eighteen Gospels produced at Tours. A sure cure for insomnia.
Those of us who have lived through two world wars are accustomed to the production of ersatz materials in times of shortage. A similar crisis was responsible for the production of vellum. In about 150 BC Eumenes n, the cultured King of Pergamum, was building up one of the world's great libraries, the fame of which began to rival that of Alexandria. In order to defend the prestige of their own library the Ptolemies forbade the export of papyrus. The intelligence of the Greeks overcame this setback by producing a superior material — and the Latin name for vellum is still pergamena.
To avoid the cost of vellum men turned to paper. First manufactured (outside China) in Samarkand in about AD 750, it continued to be imported until the first European paper was produced in the twelfth century.
The scribe wrote on lines ruled with a blunt scriber, making hollows on one side of the leaf, ridges on the other, the spacing of the lines having first been pricked out down each margin with an awl. The pen was a reed or quill, cut with a penknife; the ink was made of soot, gum and water or, alternatively, galls, sulphate of iron and gum.
Scribes were held in high honour; it is always profitable to be able to do what nobody else can do. In Ireland in the seventh and eighth centuries the penalty for killing a scribe was fully equal to that for killing a bishop, and it was considered an honour to St Patrick himself that he was so good a scribe.
The mention of St Patrick brings us to an interesting and curious situation. While the rest of Europe wallowed in the Dark Ages, Ireland was a blaze of light; the barbarians exhausted their impetus attacking England, and Ireland was left in peace. From that peace there emerged one of those inexplicable creative periods in history similar to those of England under Elizabeth I or Florence under the Medici. Scholarship flourished and Europeans travelled to Ireland in order to learn Greek, which, when one considers what travel must have been like in the Dark Ages, is no mean tribute to Irish civilization. From Christian Ireland missionaries set out to reconvert pagan Europe to the faith, and marked each stage of the journey by founding a monastery in which they produced manuscripts: first at lona in Scotland [i] and Lindisfarne in northern England; then through what is now Germany and Switzerland to St Gall; and across the Alps to Italy, where they established a monastery at Bobbio that was to become famous for its manuscripts.
In 635 King Oswald invited St Aidan to come from lona as missionary to Northumbria. He came, and made his headquarters on Holy Island, or Lindisfarne, where he founded a monastery on an Irish plan. Here, a little before AD 700, was produced (probably to celebrate the translation of St Cuthbert) the most splendid surviving example of Northumbrian
Manuscripts page 2 read on..
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