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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

II. Runes and Manuscripts

§ 8. Scribes and scriptoria

The men who wrote both roll and book, and to whose patience and devotion we owe so much of our knowledge of the times gone by, were, at first, the monks themselves; it being held that copying, especially of devotional books, was a work pleasing to God and one of the best possible ways in which men, separated from the world, could labour.

Gradually, however, there grew up a professional class of scribes, whose services could be hired for money, and who can be proved to have been employed at an early period in the monasteries of England and abroad. Nuns were also well versed in writing. Moreover, where schools were attached to monasteries the alumni were early pressed into service, at all events to copy out books needed for their own instruction.

The cloister was the centre of life in the monastery, and in the cloister was the workshop of the patient scribe. It is hard to realise that the fair and seemly handwriting of these manuscripts was executed by fingers which, on winter days, when the wind howled through the cloisters, must have been numbed by the icy cold. It is true that, occasionally, little carrells or studies in the recesses of the windows were screened off from the main walk of the cloister, and sometimes a small room or cell would be partitioned off for the use of a single scribe. This room would then be called the scriptorium, but it is unlikely that any save the oldest or most learned of the community were afforded this luxury. In these scriptoria of various kinds the earliest annals and chronicles in the English language were penned, in the beautiful and painstaking forms in which we know them.

There is no evidence for the existence of buildings specially set apart for libraries until the later Middle Ages. Books were stored in presses, placed either in the church or in convenient places within the monastic buildings. These presses were then added to as need arose, or, perhaps, a small room was set apart for the better preserving of the precious volumes. Books were frequently lost through the widespread system of lending both to private persons and to communities, and, though bonds were solemnly entered into for their safe return, neither anathema nor heavy pledges seemed sufficient to ensure the return of the volumes.

But all losses through lending, or fire, or pillage, were as nothing compared with the utter ruin and destruction that overtook the literature of England, as represented by the written remains of its past, when the monasteries were dissolved. By what remains we can estimate what we have lost, and lost irrevocably; but the full significance of this event for English literary culture will be discussed in a later chapter.