Chantry Priest of Barnet - Alfred J. Church

Of the Writing Chamber in St. Albans Abbey

I will now speak more particularly of the scriptorium, wherein, by the favour of my lord Abbot, from my very first coming to the house, I have been suffered to abide. And for this I am most heartily thankful to him, and to my good father, now deceased, who taught me to write fairly, an art wherein he himself did excel, training my hand to the work while it was yet tender, and to my mother, who did first instruct me in drawing and the using of colours and gold. For I see that such brethren who are appointed to the work of the scriptorium are, for the most part, happier than their fellows, who, for want of that which shall fitly employ them, do suffer much discontent and weariness. For though there shall be one whom it sufficeth to spend his days in devout contemplation, and another who never wearieth of singing, and yet a third who can never have enough of reading and books, yet the greater part do crave some labour wherewith to occupy their days, and, for want of it, have many strifes one with another, or fall into evil ways, or are even overcome with madness. That some, indeed, are distraught by much learning, I know. Thus it was with Alexander of Langley, sometime a monk in this house, who, being learned above all his brethren, became wise in his own conceit. And when his pride and foolishness could no longer be endured, the brethren in chapter assembled visited him with their censure. Afterwards, when this availed nothing, John de Cella, being then Abbot, commanded that he should be beaten with stripes, even to much shedding of blood. And because his frenzy was yet unsubdued, he was carried to the cell of the house, which is at Bynham, in the county of Norfolk, and shut out from the sight of all men, and so continued till his death, being bound with chains, in which also he was buried. This I forget not; but, nevertheless, believe that more are distraught for lack of study or other occupation than for too great abundance thereof.

The scriptorium is a quiet chamber, with broad windows, very fairly glazed, so that there is no lack of light, and furnished with stools for sitting, and with desks conveniently ordered for writing. Twelve of the brethren do commonly labour therein, but, if there arise any urgent need, then can place be made for twenty. Such that have less skill and experience are set to the copying of letters and the like tasks—as, for example, when the Abbot will send a letter of greeting or concerning matters of business to the priors of the cells that belong to this house. To others is assigned the copying of books, wherein must be reckoned books for the service of the Church (for these, because of their much using, must needs be often renewed), and for the private study of the brethren, as commentaries and homilies and the like, books also of rhetoric and philosophy, the works of the Romans, and of the Greeks also (but these last rendered into Latin), not being forgotten. Of these books some are copied for our own using, and some that exchange may be made with other houses for such as we do not ourselves possess. Sometimes also we borrow the books of others for copying, first giving due security for their return.

To one brother is given the charge of the scriptorium. He assigneth to each his work, being himself under command of the Abbot, and seeth that it be done aright, and that no damage be suffered by any book. Also he keepeth a list of the books that go forth of the library with the names of those that borrow them. And twice or thrice in the year he revieweth all the books, that such as need restoring, whether from dampness, or from the devouring of the book-worm, or from natural decay of time, may receive due repair. Also he hath charge of the skins, be they of sheep or goats, on which the writing is to be made, and of the ink, taking due care that none be used but such as shall endure, and of the pens.

It is a law that silence should be kept in the scriptorium. Therefore, he that hath need of anything signifies the same by signs. If he require a book, he must stretch forth his hand, moving his fingers as though he turned the leaves. If the book be a missal, he must also make the sign of the cross; if it be the Gospels, then he will make the sign of the cross upon his forehead; if it be a Psalter, then he will place his hands upon his head as in the shape of a crown; and if he require the work of a heathen, then he will scratch the ear with the hand, after the manner of a dog, because the heathen are to be counted no better than dogs. (This custom I like not, holding that these also, according to their degree, have spoken by the Spirit of God.)

The time of working varieth according to the season, for it is not permitted to have either lamp or candle in the scriptorium, lest haply the books be damaged by oil or grease dropping thereon. It must be noted also that much hindrance is caused by the mists, which do oftentimes, and more especially in the winter season, prevail in these parts, so that for many days together the scribes will sit altogether idle, or work but for a small part of the day only.

I do gather from that which I have read concerning this matter that Abbot Paul, of Caen in Normandy, who came to the primacy of this house in the year of our Lord 1077, did first set apart a chamber for this work. And this he did, being prompted thereto by the liberality of a certain knight of Normandy, who gave to the house for this end certain tithes in Hatfield and Redbourn, which tithes are indeed so applied to this day. The said Abbot found not, as I understand, any brethren in the Abbey who had the needful skill, but was constrained to hire writers from without. But for many years now past there hath never failed from the brotherhood itself a sufficient supply of persons qualified for this work.

Nevertheless it must not be forgotten that many years before the coming of the said Paul of Caen, one Ælfric was wont to spend in the transcribing of books such time as the duties of his office of abbot might leave him.

Four years did I spend in the scriptorium with much content, during which time I did, by the ordering of the governor, give myself chiefly to the copying of ancient writers in the Latin tongue, for which work I was judged to be the more fit because I had pursued these studies with some applause at Oxford, it being well that the scribe should have a good understanding of that which he writeth. But that my soul should not suffer for want of spiritual food, I did make year by year one book of the Gospels or of the Psalter. But in the beginning of the fifth year, Brother Roger, that was illuminator, a man not old and, as one would judge, hale of body, was taken suddenly with sickness, and died within the space of one day. And it was doubted much who should be put into his place, but in the end I was chosen. From this choice I did gain no small advantage, not only from the nature of the work, than which there can be none more various or delightful, but because there is set apart for the illuminator a small chamber, of which he hath the sole use. And this he hath, not only that he may do his work in peace and quietness, but because he hath need of some convenient place where he may keep his colours, his washes of gold and silver, and other implements of his craft, and also—for this is no small matter—such things as serve him for the models of his painting. For I have ever, if I may say so much of my own handiwork, striven with all my might to picture such things as it fell to my lot to represent as truthfully and well as might be. If I had to make the presentment of any person, this I did according to my best conception of what he may have been, taking for my guidance, in outward matters of dress and the like, such mention as I could find in books. And as for trees and flowers, and birds and beasts, these I have to the best of my ability copied from the things themselves, if occasion served, or I could by any means procure them. Some, indeed, have I thus been able to picture from the life, as lilies and doves and sparrows, and the like common things. And once, when I had occasion to picture an eagle as being the sign of St. John the Evangelist, then, by great good fortune, came the forester of the Abbey, that had shot with his bow an eagle—that is no common bird in these parts. But in such things I have been for the most part content to follow the picturing of them who have before laboured in this place.

I cannot easily say in words how full of delight is this chamber to me, for though it doth not contain the greater treasures of the house, such as the missal bound in gold and the psalter incomparably illuminated with the same, which Abbot Geoffrey gave to the Brotherhood, yet it hath many precious volumes, to which I hope to add more than one of my own workmanship. Verily, though I have been buffeted with many waves, God hath brought me into safe haven at last. And now I will go on to write somewhat of my life in time past, especially of how, by the ordering of God, as indeed I cannot but believe, I was brought to this place. And that I be not tedious to any one whom it may please to read what I have here written, I will pass over such things as concern the time of my childhood, and come without loss of time to the year of my going to school.