Monks, Scribes and Transcribing… Oh My!

This week in class we began the increasingly tedious task of transcribing our medieval manuscripts. One might think “oh well, this must be easy, all I’m doing is copying what I see in front of me!”. To a new transcriber, that thought is so wrong, so very, very wrong. Medieval Latin has this “amazing” thing where it uses unfamiliar abbreviations, sometimes there are no breaks in sentences or words and occasionally the letters do not look how they do in today’s modern alphabet. It took me an hour to transcribe 3 short lines of my manuscript, and there are definitely some questionable words I have created, due to the fact that I cannot decipher the correct letters and/or spelling. While this process is ridiculously frustrating, it is also incredibly fascinating (if you like this kind of stuff, that is). While I spent my time trying to configure my 3 lines, I came to think: “if I’m struggling with 3 lines, how on earth did monks copy/transcribe whole volumes of books?!”.  It wasn’t as simple as copying line per line; most of the time Latin was not the first language of monks (depending on where they were from), so copying Latin texts was no easy feat – or even if they spoke Latin flawlessly, a lot of texts were in Greek as well. This all lead to my final question, how or why did monks transcribe? Where did it begin? So I did some further research to find out.
I came across a fantastic website from Dartmouth University called Dartmouth Ancient Books Lab, which offers historical background on paleography, codicology and papyrology.  The specific article I looked at is called Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life, which explains the origins of copying texts. It all began with an Egyptian Christian named Pachomius who believed that all monks should be literate, and then some two hundred years later a man named Benedict established an Italian monastery called Monte Cassino.[1] From there, Benedict created guidelines, which he called Rule of Saint Benedict, and describes what the daily routine of a monk should be (which included tons of reading).[2] Soon after, copying texts became part of a monk’s life, due to a man named Cassiodorus’s Institutes rule book.[3] Monks believed that copying texts, especially biblical texts, were a way to spread the word of god and to fight the “snares of the devil”.[4] They often worked grueling hours, especially if they were particularly skilled at copying texts, which could lead the monks to feel anxious, hopeless and apathetic.[5] This was known as acedia, or as we know it today, depression (I mean who wouldn’t feel these things after sitting hours and hours a day inside with little to no conversation).
Not only was the copying and reading manual labour, there were also some issues that arose with it. For one, human error is inevitable, so words were spelt wrong, miscopied, forgotten or skipped on purpose (or sometimes even entire lines were just eradicated from the copied text).[6]
There were so many difficulties that a monk faced on a day-to-day basis, it’s hard to believe that people worked with these conditions. After writing this post I definitely feel I got the better end of the stick then the monks, and I’ll have to remember that copying my 13-line manuscript is not as grueling as a monk’s work!

If you want a more detailed explanation of a monk’s work, then check out these websites:


[1] Victoria Corwin, “Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life,” para. 1, Trustees of Dartmouth College, May 24th 2016,

[2] Corwin, Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life, para.1.

[3] Corwin, Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life, para.1.

[4] Corwin, Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life, para.1.

[5] Corwin, Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life, para.2.

[6] Corwin, Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life, para.3.