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Book History: Medieval Scriptoria

by Syl Schulze

Busy Mind Bindery is a blog dedicated to providing instructional tutorials on book-binding while inviting readers to think about themselves and the world around them.



inding tutorials are quite a bit of work, so I’m going easy on you this week with a bit of history! Recently, I’ve been on a spree of researching medieval monasticism. (Please don’t ask why; it’s a bit of a long story.) You may wonder what monasticism has anything to do with book-making. What kind of book do you think would be made in a monastery? That’s right- the Bible.

Monks have contributed greatly to the Western history of book-making because they would gather in a scriptorium, a room meant just for writing, to copy pages of the Bible over and over. The completed pages would then be bound together and they would have made an entire Bible, complete with illuminated illustrations. Did you notice Saint Bernard of Clairvaux chilling in the B in the first word of my first sentence? That’s called a historiated initial.

What does this history of monastic Bible-making mean for book-makers now? Well, the way books were made then has dictated how we perceive books now. It took a lot of time and resources to complete a book. Therefore, they were rare and expensive. This prevented any person of a lower class from easily accessing a book. Who is in control of the making of books is in control of what is in them and who can read them. Although those kind of decisions are made by editors and publishers now, it was the Church that had control then. Books are representative of power. Although books are quite easy for most people to access now, they are associated with having knowledge, and a hefty collection of books can be rather impressive.

Looking back at the history of book-making is important in understanding why we make books. We make books to honor that history but also to combat it: to make books accessible to all people. If we followed history exactly, women would not be making books. I, as a non-binary individual, would not be making books. We make books to blast on loud speaker the voices of those are ignored or diminished because of their gender, race, sexuality, abled-ness. We make books because we can. Anybody can.

If you are not into book-binding, think about why you write or why you make art. What can you learn from the history of your craft? What parts of its history are honorable and which need to be changed? Why are you doing your craft? For yourself? For others? For money or fame? Don’t stop asking. Why?

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