First, Greek culture and the light of Hellenism began to falter, as their expanding society was split by internal wars. Early attempts at political democracy (while needing to maintain strong militias), especially the famed city state cultures of Athens and Sparta, strained the resources of the region. They made great strides, only to have their science and learning largely subsumed by the ascent of Roman civilization. From those warm Greek hillsides came Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and countless others who would become the foundation for Western political, scientific, philosophical thought.

Roman culture built quickly upon this inheritance, eager to elaborate its own values and beliefs. The fusion of sound reasoning with expedient politics led to the construction of a vibrant, complex and far-reaching urban society. At the height of its power it stretched from Constantinople in the East to Hadrian's Wall in the West, to Alexandria in the South. Roads, private and public mail systems, public libraries, a export book trade, codified laws, an inter-national imperial bureaucracy, and limited representative government were all present at the apex of the Roman Republic.

A sense of unprecedented stability, common destiny, scientific progress and open communication prevailed among the leaders and thinkers of the time; an almost universal hope of limitless potential, through knowledge and inter-connectedness. (...sound familiar?...)

And it was precisely at this point, amid a sense of eternal optimism and limitless possibility, that the fall began.

The Dark Ages:

The reasons behind the fall of Rome have occupied historians for millennia - from even before the dissolution of the Roman state had actually began, all the way down to our present day. Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, widely considered the greatest piece of historical scholarship of all time, runs eight volumes on the subject. Nomadic barbarian tribes from the Teutonic North and Middle East, economic recession, military expenditure, internal strife, civil disobedience, social decay, lead-lined aqueducts, the 'bread and circuses' policies, corrupt leadership: all have been presented as possibilities, in one combination or another. While the factors of the empire's collapse are still widely disputed, the results are not.

When the administration of Rome began to wither, most forms of regulated commerce, communication and societal coherence went with it. The only organization with any infrastructure left to fill the vacuum was the Church.

"...bishops were men with experience in administration, at least as likely as any other local nobles to be intellectually equipped to grapple with new problems. A semi-pagan population looked to them with superstitious awe and attributed with them near-magical powers. In many places they were the last embodiment of authority left as imperial armies receded and administrations crumbled. They were the lettered men among a new illiterate ruling class..." Roberts, J. M. History of the world. (London: Helicon, 1992)

Rise of Monasticism:

Christian monasticism was born from communities of hermits, which first appeared in the East around Egypt in the 3rd c. with St. Anthony. Slowly a communal aesthetic spread around the Mediterranean, with ideals of undistracted worship, rigid fasting and mortification of the flesh.

By the 5th c., as Roman civil order continued to weaken, this flight from the world grew increasingly attractive to men and women of intellect seeking refuge from the crumbling Empire. In 529, St. Benedict established a hermitage at Monte Cassino in southern Italy, where he complied a new Rule for the lives of his order, putting forward ideals of community through study, work, prayer and meditation.

In 590, the Papacy under Gregory (former monk and Roman aristocrat) gathered together the remains of the Roman libraries and archives, then organized missionary campaigns into pagan England (St. Augustine of Canterbury arrived there 596 AD). By the 8th c. Benedict's Rule was to be found in practice in monasteries as far north as Scotland.

"The Church was in these centuries deploying powers which cannot have been distinguished clearly by the faithful from those of magic. It used them to drill a barbaric world into civilization...still after antiquity barter replaced money...spices disappeared from ordinary diets, wine became a costly luxury; people ate and drank bread and porridge, beer and water...subsistence was all there was." Roberts, J. M. History of the world. (London: Helicon, 1992)

The death of Literacy:

Literacy after the collapse of the Roman empire is widely acknowledged to have all but died in most of Europe, where often it had never been strong to begin with. Even Charlemagne, shaper of the Carolingian Dynasty and Renaissance (9th c. AD) never learned to read (though he did try):

"Charlemagne's concerns went beyond the court library to encompass the literary needs of the entire empire...not only providing books for individual collections, but...insuring that the hunting lands allotted to cloisters were providing sufficient leather for the necessary bindings." ~ Karl Christ, The Handbook of Medieval Library History (Metchuen: Scarecrow, 1984)
No small consideration given it is estimated it would take 180 animal skins to produce the parchment for a full text of the Bible. Still, though far and wide, the vast majority of the population might be born and die without ever even setting a finger on a book, let alone have the time or privilege to learn to read.

What does this mean for a society, when it can no longer make its own knowledge and experience permanent? What happens to its stories and history, its science and literature, its beliefs and values?

They become fragile. The first Visigoths who overran Germany, France and Italy in this period, have left behind but scanty evidence of their even having a written culture before their contact with the Christian West. Most of their early oral history is only codified in the mid-6th c. The pontiffs of Rome had to 'bestow' a script and system of writing upon them in order to facilitate governmental communication; "it is only in literature- in the book- that the cultural historical life of a people is securely anchored." (Schottenloher, Books and the western world: a cultural history, London: McFarland, 1989)


The leadership of the Church realized the threat of lost knowledge, having an institutional memory long enough to have witnessed to the disappearance of vast swaths of ancient material as libraries throughout Europe vanished. Meanwhile, the libraries of the East in Baghdad and Cairo, in Medina and Toledo, were whispered to be vast and growing. There were gas-lit streetlamps, running water and gold-spired mosques in the cities of Islam. Knowledge of paper production had hit Baghdad in the 8th c.; it would take three hundred years more to reach Spain, and five centuries to become at all common in Europe.

One of the prime movers in the attempt to revitalize Christian culture came in a monk named Cassiodorus (c.550), who realized the lights of his culture were very near to going out;

"Education implies schools, schools imply libraries, libraries imply books and, at that time, the copying of books. All of these were eventually to become associated with great monasteries...despite the fact they had little to do with the original religious aspirations which gave rise to monasticism...there was nothing in the Rule, for example, about the copying of books; it was Cassiodorus who appears to have initiated the process that was ultimately to make it an almost quintessential part of the monk's duty." (Oakley, F. The medieval experience. Toronto, 1995.)

By 600, there were 200 monasteries in Gaul (France) alone. By 1066, over 300 were established in the British Isles.

The Writing Life:

For the vast majority of the former imperial provinces, subsistence became the true focus and the Church, by controlling a remote network of monasteries, became the sole guardian of knowledge. For almost six centuries, there was bitter hardship as empire gave way to theocratic feudalism.

Yet in the midst of disease and war, drought and famine, 100s of monks in hundreds of monasteries reaching from the British Isles to Palestine, would toil over their task- of writing. The pace of this copying varied greatly; one Flemish scribe, living to be 60, is known to have scripted in his life 19 missals, 3 evangelaries, 2 lectionaries and 4 matins books, in addition to his other duties in the monastery.

Preservation of posterity was the divine motivation in the endless work undertaken by the various brotherhoods. This impetus to preserve was often in conflict with the Church's own doctrine, particularly if a work or author was deemed heretical or dangerous by decree only after some brother had toiled months, six hours a day on average, to meticulously copy out his notes.

This led to the not- infrequent practice of 'renaming' an author, or rendering a text anonymous, in order to comply with the new theological tide. Careless handling of a codex was a venal sin in most monasteries and could lead to a monk's exclusion from the community for three days.

During the 40 days of Lent, according to the 48th chapter of the Rule, each monk was to pore over a book assigned to him. Reading was conducted at all meals and monks, on the rare occasions when they did travel, were proscribed to have a book with them for reading at any point in the journey where he was forced to stop.

Often times the monk would be en route to another monastery, to deliver a book, retrieve one, or copy a manuscript while he was visiting the abbey. In the halls of the buildings themselves, silent reading soon became a rule in the 9th c., presumably in part as a way to maintain harmony as the volume of work in scriptoriums increased along with the need for concentration on maintaining the integrity of the copied text. Monks complained frequently in the margins of a text about their working conditions or supplies : this ink is runny, this parchment is hairy, praise God it will soon be dark, I need a drink, or "It is a painful task. It extinguishes light from the eyes, it bends the back, it crushes the ribs, it brings forth pain to the kidneys, and weariness to the whole body." Book curses, against theft, were also popular, "This books belongs to the Abbey of St. Mary in Arnstein, which, if anyone should take away, may he die surely, by being cooked in a pan, have the falling sickness and fevers draw near him, may be hung up and twisted around. Amen."

Glossary of codicology terms:

Sources and Suggested Reading:

Thomas Brown, "The Transformation of the Roman Mediterranean, 400-900" and Edward James, "The Northern World of the Dark Ages" in Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe, ed. G. Holmes (London: Oxford, 1988), pp. 1-62; R. Hodges, Dark Age Economics (London, 1982); Robert Delort, Life in the Middle Ages, trans. R. Allen (NY: Lausanne, 1973); David Diringer, The Book Before Printing: Ancient, Medieval and Oriental (NY: Dover, 1982); Leila Avrin, Scribes, script and books: the book arts from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Chicago: ALA, 1991); Guila Bologna, Illustrated Manuscripts: The Book Before Gutenberg (London: Thames and Hudson, 1988); Jean Leclerq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, 3rd ed. (NY: Fordham, 1995); L.D. Reynolds, Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1974); Christopher DeHamel, History of the Illuminated Manuscript (Oxford: Phaidon, 1986); Montague Rhodes James, The Wanderings and Homes of Manuscripts (NY: MacMillan, 1919); Doris H. Banks, Medieval Manuscript Bookmaking (Scarecrow, 1989); Harold Innis, Empire and Communications, 2nd ed. (Toronto, 1971); Francis Oakley, The Medieval Experience (Toronto, 1993); Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne (NY: Meridian, 1960).

It all begins with a sheep.

The first stage of medieval manuscript production was, of course, the provision of raw materials for the pages; papyrus had passed out of fashion in the 4th century or so, leaving parchment and, from the 13th century onwards, paper. Depending on the size and planned dimensions of the manuscript, sheep (common on the mainland), calfs (common in insular manuscripts), or even goats (rarely, and mostly in Italy) were slaughtered and skinned. For manuscripts like the famous Codex Amiatinus, the lives of up to 500 sheep were sacrificed for the project. The skin was not tanned, but soaked in a solution of calcium lye, to dissolve and loosen any remaining hair and fat, then scraped clean with a sickle; for the parchment of higher-quality manuscripts, this process may have been repeated. A famous woodcut series from the 15th century provides us with pictorial evidence for the next step: the skin was stretched on racks and let dry for several days. For Carolingian, Byzantine, and early Armenian parchment, the process ended here, leaving a clear distinction between the flesh side (smooth, with few marks and small pores) and hair side (rougher, with larger pores and individual follicles occasionally still embedded, not to mention the scars of any diseases or wounds the animal may have had during its lifetime).

Italian parchment was the first to be treated additionally with chalk dust to whiten the pages. Insular parchment was further rubbed, after drying, with pumice stones, leaving a rough surface comparable to modern cold-press paper, particularly suitable for bonding with the heavier, brighter pigments of colour painting. This very thin, rough material, usually made from calfskin, is known as vellum, thus distinguished from parchment. After it was thus dried and treated, the parchment was trimmed (usually from the main part, cutting off the protruding sections of the limbs, neck and tail) and ready for use

Paper first came into production in Europe in the mid-13th century. Traditionally, the movement of the paper-making process from China has been assigned to the presence of Chinese captives in the city of Samarkand in the mid-8th century, which then spread to the Muslim world and into the west through the crusader contact and the Arab colonies in Spain. Whatever the case, by the 12th century there was already a paper-mill in Arab-controlled Valencia; in 1390, Ulman Stromer founded the first paper mill in Germany, and the use of paper in manuscripts gradually grew, in no small part for economic reasons; it was ultimately much cheaper to harvest a single grove than to slaughter a herd.

Usually the next step was to take the individual leaves and copy the text, before binding. Most texts of the medieval world were copied by whole scriptoria of monastic scribes. It is easy to take pity on their working conditions; we picture the lone scribe, trapped in a drafty stone cell in front of a small wooden table, sloped towards him with a single sheet pinned down and a dimly-lit text at his side. Thanks to the common motif-paintings attached to many gospel-books depicting the pensive Evangelist awaiting divine inspiration in his scriptorium, we are left with many scenes of the scribe's basic equipment. In the early period, the pen, or calamus (Latin, "reed") was usually a trimmed reed or wooden pen, a rod with a triangular shape and tapered at the end. Ever more common from the 10th century was the quill, usually a goose feather. Beside him, the scribe kept a knife for trimming the pages, two ink-horns, a pair of razors for erasing, a pumice-stone for evening the texture of the parchment, chalk for whitening the surface, a straight edge, and an awl, used to prick guidelines in the page to keep the text straight. The oldest and cheapest inks are made from soot, water, and gum, though some examples are made from sepia or gall gum and iron vitriol. It became common starting in the 6th century to make the ink from boiled whitehorn or blackthorn mixed with wine and blackened with soot. Usually this produced a thin, dark brown or yellow colour. Only in the British Isles do we see a true black. Some of these inks, especially those made from vitriol, were so acidic that all we are left with today are "little windows" in the page where the letters once were. In the rarest cases, for royal manuscripts, the inks are made from a metallic base, a deep, rich gold or silver meant to cover manuscripts dyed with purple murex. From the end of the 13th century, the scribe might even have a pair of spectacles to aid his wretched eyesight.

Usually, copying and illumination were done by separate persons, and indeed involved entirely different skills. Some of the best evidence for the process comes from Armenia, from which we have the most vibrant paintings of the medieval world, as well as numerous example and pattern-books, containing charcoal sketches which provided the artistic models for the painter. Inks varied depending on the scriptorium's resources as well as the period and age. Vegetable-bases were common in the Byzantine empire and Italy. Richer, thicker pigments were made from minerals. The design was usually etched in charcoal or sepia-inks before it was filled.

The pages of the finished parchment were let dry and then collected to form the manuscript. The basic form is the codex (Latin caudex, "tree bark"), already mentioned by the first century poet Martial and common by the beginning of the fifth century. The trimmed pages are stacked and folded along the center once to form a gathering. Usually a gathering consists of 4 folded pages, 5 in insular manuscripts, more in the later middle ages, though there certainly exist Gospel books and smaller works with gatherings of up to 50 pages. Pages folded twice, once across and once over, form a quarto; anbody who has done yearbook in highschool will still recognize a basic gathering of 4 quartos, 16 pages.

These gatherings were then pressed, punctured with an awl and sewn vertically across the fold to a cloth or parchment backing. Often these narrow strips of parchment are recycled from discarded manuscripts, and in dissecting or repairing these manuscripts today we often find important texts scribbled on them, occasionally plugging fragments or supporting disputed readings. The parchment is often doubled, sometimes coated in a thick glue to stiffen the backing. Reinforcing strips known as headbands are sometimes added to the topmost and bottommost edge of the backing to reinforce the structure and provide additional support when the book is stored standing. Alternately, the book may be sewn instead to a series of cords laid perpendicularly to the spine.

An additional layer of backing is then attached, this time leaving additional material flowing over the edges of the spine. The next step is, of course, the cover, and this depends on the form. There are three basic cover-types used in the middle ages:

  • de luxe bindings, made from precious metals or ivory and inlaid with gems and stones, representing the richest and most complex metalwork available at the time. Often these are hammered coverings attached with nails or rivets to a thin wooden board. These covers are attached directly to the overflowing strips and then inlaid with a solid piece of parchment which connects the inside cover and the first page of the first gathering.
  • The next type are the eponymous wooden boards from which the codex gets its name. These are attached on the front and back to the headbands of the spine, then covered with a sheet of leather riveted to the boards and folded onto the inside of the cover. This is then covered with the two endsheets, as before. This is certainly the most common type of cover, providing excellent protection while not requiring nearly the resources the de luxe bindings demanded.
  • The third and last type is a simple, soft leather or cloth cover, attached to the headbands and endsheets; this provides the most basic protection for the book, but was relatively cheap.

The life of a manuscript naturally didn't end there. Texts which were commonly used often wore through their covers, in which case they were rebound again and again; the oldest Armenian text, dating from the 7th century, is currently contained in a 15th century binding. Librarians were thoroughly practical about their books, though. Texts which were considered heretical were sometimes destroyed, taken apart and used as material for endsheets and backings. More common is the palimpsest (from the Greek, palin psao, "I wipe over again"). When a text was no longer useful, or, in the case of many Hebrew, Greek, and Gothic manuscripts, could no longer be read, it was often simply erased, the ink washed off with water and scraped off with a strigil. If the paper and binding were still of good quality, it was then re-used and written over. Depending on the inks used and the degree of erasure, it is still sometimes possible to read these hidden texts.

One of the most important conclusions drawn from all this information is that a book in the middle ages was, above all, a commodity, requiring enormous resources and labour to complete. Only the wealthiest communities could create large works like the Book of Kells, which demanded not only vast, expendable herds but the available man-power dedicated entirely to the creation of a document. A single book required at the very least a herdsman, a butcher, a tanner, a metal-worker, a scribe, and a painter, working for several years to produce a finished product. The slow and gradual pace of the dissemination of literacy and knowledge throughout the middle ages had a very material basis. Even so, these books are still the most beautiful artifacts of their age remaining to us.

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