Introductory—Monasteries and their work from the sixth to the ninth century—The claustral schools—Alcuin—Warnefrid and Theodulf—Clerics and monastics—The Golden Age of monasticism—The Order of St. Benedict—Cistercian houses—Other Orders—Progress of writing in Carolingian times—Division of labour.

In the sixth century the monasteries, such as they were, necessarily kept themselves very quiet and unobtrusive. They were situated usually in out-of-the-way corners, solitudes apart from civilisation, or, at least, apart from the busy haunts of men. In the eighth century there is a marked difference. The Capitular of Aix-la-Chapelle, of 789, required that minor schools should be attached to all monasteries and cathedral churches without exception, and that children of all ranks, both noble and servile, should be received into them. Also that the larger monasteries should open major schools in which the seven sciences of mathematics, astronomy, arithmetic, music, rhetoric, dialectics, and geography, were to be taught—and this in two ways. There were to be two sorts of schools—interior or claustral, intended for monastics only, and exterior or canonical, intended for secular students. These schools were under separate scholastics or masters, and lay students were received in the exterior schools as freely and fully as in the public schools of the present time. Mabillon[18] gives a list of some twenty-seven monastic and cathedral schools, by no means confined to great or wealthy cities, but well distributed throughout the Empire.

[18] Præfat. in iv. Sæcul. 184.

In the time of Charlemagne those most in repute were Tours, St. Gall, Fulda, Reims, and Hirsfeld.

We have given the names of Alcuin and Paul Warnefrid as the chief promoters of the Carolingian Revival, but we should not omit that of Theodulf, of Orleans, the indefatigable school inspector of the time. He it was who assisted the artistic side of the movement by his ingenious contrivances as a writer and illustrator of school books. Undoubtedly it was from his suggestions that we so often find in mediæval scientific treatises of the driest kind those graphic and wonderful tabulations and edifices, labelled and turreted, which make Aristotle, Priscian, and Marcianus Capella, not only comprehensible, but attractive. Theodulf composed in simple and easy Latin verse—somewhat after the style of the Propria quæ maribus our own childhood—the description of a supposed tree of science, which he had drawn and painted, on the trunk and branches of which were the figures and names of the seven liberal arts. At the foot sat Grammar—the basis of all learning—holding on her hand a lengthy rod (ominous for the tender student). On the right Rhetoric stretched forth her hand. On the left was Dialectic. Philosophy sat on the summit; the rest being disposed according to their relative importance. The whole was explained in the Carmina de septem artibus, in which the bishop, who was one of the famous poets of the age, strove in flowery language to render these dry-as-dust studies acceptable to the youthful understanding. Theodulf was a great scholar, and assisted Alcuin in the revision of the Bible, one copy of which he himself had written whilst still Abbat of Fleury, about 790. At the beginning of this Bible is a poem in golden letters on purple, and a preface in prose, also in golden letters, giving a synopsis of the several books. The text differs somewhat from the Alcuin Bible, as it is that of Jerome before Alcuin's revision. This MS. is now at Paris. Another Bible executed to the order of Theodulf is now in the Town Library at Puy.

It seems incredible, after the efforts made by Charlemagne and his ministers for the maintenance of learning and the arts, that there should ever be any risk of a return to barbarism, but it is a fact that the dissolution of the Empire proved in certain localities the suspension of prosperity. Fortunately the monastics—especially the Benedictines—and the canons of the cathedrals still kept up the practice of copying books; but almost all the South of France, Languedoc, and Provence, always conservative, remained more or less illiterate. They produced poets and jongleurs, but seldom artists or scholars. And even in the North, where the capitular schools were most flourishing—as Paris, Reims, and Chartres—the general tendency was towards relapse. In High Germany it was even worse. In spite of all efforts of the clergy by the extension of secular schools, the laity preferred the excitement of chase and camp to the quiet humdrum of the schoolroom. Religion seemed to be regarded rather as a profession than a principle, quite right in its place, i.e. the Church and the monastery, but unsuited for active life. The wealthy land-owners, therefore, did not cease to endow religious houses or to build churches, but they left book-learning to the clerics. Accordingly the clerics and the monastics flourished exceedingly.

From the beginning of the tenth century to the beginning of the thirteenth was the Golden Age of monasticism. The Order of St. Benedict scattered its foundations thickly over France and Western Germany, while its reformed colonies of Cluny, Citeaux, Clairvaux, and the Chartreuse again spread their settlements in all directions. Thus we find Cluny established in 910, Grammont in 1076, the Chartreuse in 1080, Citeaux in 1098, Savigny in 1105, Tiron in 1109, Austin Canons in 1038, Premonstrants in 1120, Crutched Friars in 1169. In England, from 1100, scarcely a year passed by without the establishment of some fresh foundation. During the thirty-five years of the reign of Henry I. more than 150 religious houses were founded. And even during the disastrous reign of Stephen, in less than twenty years, no fewer than 100 houses of various Orders were established. The twelfth century in England was especially the age of monasteries.

It is true that not very much in the way of original literature, except theological treatises, can be assigned to the three centuries referred to, but the unwearied labours of the copyist and illuminator did much to preserve the works which previous centuries had created. Of course, in so long a period changes were many and great. So great, indeed, that between a MS. of 850 and another of 1200 scarcely is there a common feature.

From 850 to 1000 in France the Carolingian minuscule, from the first so clear and beautiful, remained with scarce a stroke of alteration. But immediately after the opening of the eleventh century a series of rapid changes set in, and by the beginning of the twelfth a new hand, perfectly clear and regular, but quite different from the Carolingian, had been formed, which lasted until it was superseded by the Gothic, while a system of contractions adopted because of the scarcity of parchment creates a fresh need for study apart from the peculiarities of personal habits. Side by side, too, with this there grows up a non-professional hand—the so-called cursive or running hand of the ordinary writer—in many cases, especially in deeds and other brief compositions, all but utterly illegible, except to the professional palæographer. Occasionally these autographs are of the highest importance and intensely interesting, as, for instance, when in an English MS. we come Across a note in the handwriting of Ordericus (Vitalis) or Matthew Paris.

From 900 to 1200 the vast majority of MSS., illuminated and otherwise, were the work of monastics. Every house of any note had its room set apart for writing. The larger monasteries sometimes utilised the cloisters of the churches themselves, in recesses of which they had desks or tables placed for the copyist. Usually, however, they had a large common room called the scriptorium, where either the copyist and illuminator worked separately and each on his own account, or where a number of copyists awaited with pen and parchment the dictation by one of the fraternity of some work of which a number of copies had to be made. “No admittance except on business” was the rule of this chamber. There, under the direction of the armarius, the expert writers did their work.

Sometimes a single monk executed the book from first to last by himself. He prepared the vellum, ruled it with the fine metal point, copied the text, painted the illuminations, put on the gilding, and even added the binding. Generally, however, the labour was divided—one monk scraped and polished the parchment; another ruled it; another wrote the text, leaving spaces for initials and miniatures; another put in the initials and did the gilding and flourishing with borders, etc.; and another painted the miniatures. This in the monasteries was done in the case of large and important MSS., and afterwards, when illuminating became a lay-craft, subdivision of labour was the common practice. Binding was done in a special apartment, and by one specially skilled therein.

The scriptorium was looked upon as a sort of sacred place, and the work of copying often considered as a labour of piety and love—entered upon with devout prayer, and solemnly blessed by the superior, especially in cases where the books to be written were Bibles, or connected with the services of the house, the Lives of the Saints, or Treatises on Theology.

Very frivolous or absurd indeed are sometimes the inducements to copyists to do gratuitous work of this kind, such as that every letter transcribed paid for one sin of the copyist, and it is said that a certain monk—a heavy sinner—only owed his salvation to the fact that the number of letters in a Bible which he copied exceeded by a single unit the sum total of his sins.