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All knowledge production done during the medieval era comes from Monk’s copying ancient books of Latin and Greek authors. For years of their lives, medieval monks would work tirelessly to copy books and manuscripts making sure to preserve them for future generations.
During the medieval era, it would take a monk between 6 months to a year to fully read and copy a book. This process changed depending upon the time period. Typically during the early medieval process the average time was about a year. In the later medieval era this process was shortened to around 6 months.
Over the course of the medieval period monks would copy thousands of books. Normally a monk would be given one book at a time to both read and copy. This allowed ‘libraries’ to develop at medieval monasteries. These monasteries continue to be treasure troves for historians studying medieval and ancient history today!
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Without further ado, here is an article answering the question of how long it took for a medieval monk to copy a book.
Average Time To Copy A Book In Early Medieval Age (pre 1150 AD)
During the early medieval period the average time, it would take for a monk to copy a book or manuscript would be around 1 year.
Thanks to the monastic order of St. Benedict historians have surviving primary sources that outline the time given to each monk to complete and read a book. Here monks were given complete access to the monastery’s personal library and given orders to spend at least 2 hours a day reading Latin manuscripts and books.
During the medieval era monks were given time during the evening to read sanctioned books. This time of reading was called a compline and its purpose was to familiarize the monk with Latin text as well as increase their reading speed. This was an incredibly tiring process as the Latin of the medieval era was extremely different than the Latin of the ancient Romans. This was one of the main reasons that it took forever to copy a book; they first had to translate it into their Latin!
While a monk was given a set amount of time to read every day they would also be given ample time to copy the books they read. The reason for this was that books during the early medieval era were extremely rare; as a result of this books were often loaned between monasteries. In order to retain the book in the monastery’s library a monk would have to hand-copy it after translating it from ancient to medieval Latin.
During the early medieval era, monks were given a maximum of a year to read and copy a book. We know about this because of the Rule of St. Benedict which set operating rules for monasteries across medieval Europe. Within these operating rules, the timeline of one year was more of a soft deadline. Depending on how good the individual monk was at reading ancient latin they could translate, write, and bind a copy in sometimes 9-10 months; this would have been rare however.
Besides this maximum of one year to copy a medieval book, there are few other time estimates we can give. This is because each monk would work at their own pace. The monasteries did not pressure a monk to work fast because accuracy and quality mattered more than the speed of copying. Because of this monks would often decorate their pages with extremely ornate drawings. Some of these books have survived to the modern day and serve as excellent sources of medieval artwork.
As such during the medieval era, we can assume that it would take closer to one year on average for a medieval monk to copy a book or manuscript.
Average Time To Copy A Book In Late Medieval Age (after 1150 AD)
The time it took for a medieval monk to copy a book or manuscript during late medieval Europe increased drastically. This was because of advances in monastery administration along with a surging population which brought more monks into the monasteries.
While in the early medieval period it might have taken upwards of a year to copy a book during the late medieval period this time was cut in half during the late medieval era to around 6 months.
Sometime around the 11th century, professional monastic dedicated scribes would become a profession. This coincided with the rise of buildings called Scriptoriums that housed hundreds of books and writing desks for monks to copy books by hand. Now one monk could have 2 or 3 professional scribes that would hand copy each page for the monk to review. This significantly decreased the time it would take to hand-copy a book.
These scriptoriums would allow for one monk called a armarius to dictate their copying duties to several scribes at once. Each scribe might copy one-page several times before moving on to the next. This created a primitive factory line of monks all copying a couple of pages of the same text. At the end of this cycle, the monk would review the pages and then hand them off to another monk who would bind them together into a book. Simply put, during the late medieval period a monasteries scriptorium would have acted as a primitive printing press.
This ‘monk-copying factory’ drastically speed up the average time it took for monks to hand-copy medieval books and manuscripts. Towards the end of the medieval era a single scribe could copy 3-4 pages during daylight hours. This would allow a scribe during the late medieval era to copy one book every 6 months. On top of this now multiple books could be produced during a one time frame whereas before a monk would have to hand copy one before moving on to the next.
As the demand for book production grew towards the end of the medieval era monasteries would even start to outsource some of their book production to commercial scribes using a system called the pecia system. This allowed monasteries to begin to drastically increase book production from 6 months to around 4 at its peak. However, this pecia system was short-lived as around 1436 the printing press would be invented by Johannes Gutenberg. This new invention could produce up to 250 pages per hour, which allowed around 8-10 books to be produced per day! As you might imagine there was no need to use monasteries to hand copy books anymore.
As such during the late medieval period, it took around 6 months on average for a medieval monk to copy a book or manuscript.
There you have it; an entire article dedicated to answering the question of how long it took for a medieval monk to copy a book.
The concept of book production is a fascinating subject. Not enough historians have looked into the societal effects of the speed of book production. Potential graduate students will find a wealth of research topics surrounding medieval monks and their books.
Here at The History Ace I strive to publish the best history articles on the internet. Feel free to subscribe to the free newsletter and share around the internet.
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