Station: [15] Bible Production in the Middle Ages: the Scriptorium

What might be going through this monk’s mind as he stands there in his medieval cloister?

Throughout the Middle Ages, it was the religious houses that reproduced and disseminated the Bible. Countless monks and nuns worked in the scriptoria, copying, writing and illustrating the priceless manuscripts.

They sat on hard wooden benches at desks with angled writing surfaces. Feel free to try it out for yourself and see how a medieval scribe would have felt at his or her workplace.

O quam tristis est scriptura: oculos grauat renes frangit simul et omnia membra contristat. Tria digita scribunt, totus corpus laborat

"Oh, how hard it is to write. It dulls the eyes, crushes the kidneys, and causes agony in all the limbs. Three fingers write, the whole body toils..."

A complaint uttered by one scribe more than thirteen hundred years ago. His materials were: goose feathers, ink, a wax tablet and, last but not least, a sheet of parchment. 

To avoid wasting the precious parchment, the scribe would have made a sketch of the page on the wax tablet – creating a kind of draft layout. Then he or she drew fine lines on the parchment, which had already been cut to size. The scribe would have left room for elaborate images or individual letters, and finally set to work on transferring the text, making a fair copy. By adjusting the angle of the quill, you could control how much ink was able to flow. Because, of course, the letters must not appear too pale, and the ink was definitely not allowed to run!

There was no "Delete" key, and certainly no autocorrect. These days, that’s something we can barely imagine!

Medieval scribes were artists and the works they produced – Gospels, pericopes (that is, extracts), or liturgical books – were only affordable for the aristocratic elite ... who were often not even able to read!

We have a few of these handwritten and elaborately decorated books on display in our treasury. That’s the small room to the right of the meditating monk.

But perhaps you yourself would like to try your hand at the art of calligraphy? On one of the two writing desks, visitors to the Bible Gallery have started a major project: producing a hand-written copy of the Bible – admittedly not with goose quill and parchment, but "only" with a ballpoint pen and paper....

... But still! Why not join our team of scribes!

All depictions: © Bibelgalerie Meersburg