Encyclopaedia Article: Book Production and Distribution

Nikki Hessell

Copyright 2000

The culture of book production and distribution in Anglo-Saxon England has three sides: the monasteries, the royal court, and the populace. From the early sixth century until the twelfth century, the monasteries were responsible for creating and storing manuscripts. Scriptoria, or ‘writing offices’, were established within the monasteries to copy manuscripts, which were then stored in their libraries. All of these texts would have been written in Latin. The monastic collections were developed through trading with other monasteries, both within England and in continental Europe. Most of the books produced in the scriptoria were copies of the Bible and religious commentaries. But some secular texts were also produced, enabling the dev elopment of scholarly historical and scientific work, such as that undertaken by the scholar Bede (673-735) at the Jarrow monastery. This culture of book production and trade was to change in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, which saw the rapid develop ment of schools and the consequent growth in demand for manuscripts.

It is possible to establish the place of origin of some surviving manuscripts. Scriptoria probably had a master scribe, whose style was taught to apprentices. The common stylistic elements allow scholars to group manuscripts together, a nd potentially suggest the location of the scriptoria that produced them. The range and number of manuscripts belonging to an individual scriptorium can also be used to estimate the number of scribes who worked there.

Monarchs sometimes played the role of purchaser and patron, either requesting or buying books from the monasteries to enable the creation of new libraries. King Æthelstan, who ruled from 925 until 939, is known to have commissione d several books, including the so-called ‘Æthelstan Psalter’. By the tenth century, there is evidence that a pool of scribes was permanently maintained at the courts of some Anglo-Saxon kings. Royal scribes probably did not produce many religious ma nuscripts, which could be obtained from the monasteries, but instead dealt with the business of the court, such as making inventories and drafting charters. In the courts of Alfred and Æthelstan, however, the scriptoria may have copied books as well . During King Alfred’s reign (871-99) scribes and scholars were maintained as part of a program to develop book-learning.

The laity could purchase books through the monastic and royal scriptoria. Though cost and literacy rates made this rare, there is evidence in Bede’s writing that manuscript copies were made ‘for lesser folk to read’. Individually commis sioned texts were also produced, primarily for wealthy customers. But it is unlikely that books were designed for everyday reading, and private ownership of manuscripts was relatively rare. Oral storytelling fulfilled the entertainment function of books, and few people would have had the capital or the inclination to build substantial libraries. The wills of members of the Anglo-Saxon nobility, such as that of Atheling Athelstan (c. 1014?), sometimes indicate the ownership of manuscripts, but it is conjec tured that such owners were not able to read without assistance.

The connection between the three spheres of the book trade has been described by Anne Lawrence as the result of a ‘centralised cultural policy’ (39) emanating from the royal court of Alfred and his immediate successors. This policy refl ects the role that books were seen to play in Anglo-Saxon society. They reinforced the cultural, religious, and social values of the ruling class. The royal scriptoria may have produced liturgical texts to be passed on to the churches; one of the objectiv es of Alfred’s scholarly program was the development of standardised religious teaching. Books could also be used to strengthen friendships and alliances, since they were seen as valuable gifts. It is known, for example, that Æthelstan used books to establish diplomatic relations with Continental monarchs. It is possible for modern scholars to study the scope of these practices and the range of written material available for Anglo-Saxon readers by examining the booklists or inventories of libraries, and records of donations to those libraries.

Despite the limited material available from the Anglo-Saxon period, it is evident that between the sixth century and the Norman Conquest, England established a robust industry of book production and distribution. The efforts of scholars , monarchs, and the clergy in developing libraries and scholarship had a profound effect on English history; by 1066, as Michelle Brown describes it, England was ‘one of the most sophisticated states of the medieval West’ (5).


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