Cambridge University Press
0521792436 - Women as Scribes - Book Production and Monastic Reform in Twelfth-Century Bavaria - by Alison I. Beach
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In the last quarter of the twelfth century, a scribe at a newly founded Premonstratensian monastery near Munich put the finishing touches to a manuscript containing homilies on the Epistles and Gospels. She then took an unusual step. At the bottom of the final folio she drew a cross, and within it wrote: “This book, which sister Irmingart wrote with the permission of Prior Henry, belongs to the monastery of Saint Dionysius, Schäftlarn.”1 Irmingart thus became one of a small number of twelfth-century scribes – female or male – to record her own name.2

   It would be easy to assume that Irmingart was exceptional in her role as a scribe since hers are among the very few surviving twelfth-century manuscripts that bear a female name.3 But most of the surviving manuscripts from the early and central Middle Ages are unsigned, a fact that may in part be attributed to the monastic quest for humility. The exacting work of copying manuscripts was seen as a pious labor, and at many monastic communities, taking credit for scribal work with a signature might have been interpreted as an expression of pride. But some monastic scribes – male and female – did record their names, reminding us that the decision to sign or not to sign a manuscript was informed by more than interest, or lack thereof, in humility.4

   In spite of their propensity to anonymity – whatever its motivations – female copyists emerge also from other monastic houses in Bavaria. The names of female scribes from Benedictine Admont and Wessobrunn survive in a variety of written sources: necrologies, charters, booklists, and in the prefaces of exegetical works. While these women did not identify themselves, their contemporaries celebrated their achievements and recorded their names. The shadowy presence of female scribes at other monastic centers, in Bavaria as well as in other parts of Europe, suggests that Admont, Schäftlarn, and Wessobrunn were exceptional, not in their employment of women in the scriptorium, but in the degree to which their female scribes are now visible to us. This fact has important implications for the study of the role of medieval women in the production of books and the transmission of texts. Rather than ask why the names of so few have survived, we must explore the process by which the names that are known have been preserved. How did these scribes escape anonymity? What elements of their monastic life permitted them to record their names, or prompted others to commemorate their activity in written form? And most importantly, what do these women and their books have to say about female participation in, and contributions to, the monastic reformation of the twelfth century – particularly in Germanic lands, which have often been neglected in studies of medieval intellectual development and religious reform?


The record of a medieval scribe’s name and the copy to which it was added first had to win the fight for physical survival. The carefully repaired tear extending diagonally across the cruciform colophon in Irmingart’s book of homilies (see Figure A) reflects the fragility of the evidence. Charred folios in several volumes attributed to the twelfth century’s most prolific known female scribe, Diemut of Wessobrunn, also remind us of how easily manuscripts can be damaged and destroyed. In fact, when her monastery’s library was cataloged in 1803, only fourteen of Diemut’s original corpus of forty-five books were still extant in the collection. The preservation of the bulk of the evidence of female scribal activity, it seems, is the result of chance.

Figure A Cruciform colophon in Irmingart’s book of homilies which reads: Iste liber pertinet ad sanctum dyonisium sceftlaren quem scripsit soror Irmengart obtentu domni. Hainrici prepositi. (This book, which sister Irmingart wrote with the permission of Prior Henry, belongs to the monastery of Saint Dionysius, Schäftlarn.)

   A second critical factor was the success in Germany of the double monastery.5 Dual-sex monasticism, wherever it was present and whatever form it took, could prove a favorable climate for female scribes throughout the Middle Ages.6 Twelfth-century dual-sex monasteries tended to receive the support of wealthy aristocratic and royal families, and wealth brought freedom from the daily manual tasks required for subsistence in poorly endowed communities, leaving monks and nuns more time for intellectual pursuits.7 Operating a scriptorium was expensive, in terms of both materials and human capital, putting book production out of the reach of many small women’s monasteries. At some double communities, nuns had access to a larger library for books to read or copy than they had at small, isolated, all-female houses. Greater financial resources, combined with the lively intellectual life that characterized many twelfth-century dual-sex monasteries, encouraged the production of books by both men and women.

   The post-medieval politics of centralization also played a role in the preservation of the names and work of twelfth-century female scribes. The transfer of many Bavarian manuscripts to a central library in Munich under Napoleon in 1803 may partially explain why most of the surviving examples of the work of known named and namable female scribes are from Bavaria.8 Consolidation within a secular institutional context helped to ensure the survival of numerous monastic libraries – including those of Wessobrunn and Schäftlarn – by preventing the further scattering and destruction of books through sale, theft, and war. Admont, which was not secularized in the nineteenth century, has remained in continuous operation since the eleventh century, and still houses its medieval library almost intact.9

   The survival of a scribe’s work is not sufficient, however, to ensure recognition of his or her activity. Preserving the identity of those named – and discovering still others whose names are lost – depends even now on attracting the attention of scholars. The prevailing assumption that monks but not nuns produced books in the Middle Ages is a formidable obstacle. While scholars have long been aware that women copied books in some medieval monasteries, they have tended not to consider women’s houses or double communities when investigating the origin of a book.10 As medieval manuscripts are cataloged and localized, the presumption of male scribal identity deflects attention from women’s houses. Recent scholarship has taken note of a few extraordinary women and the books that they helped to create, particularly Hildegard of Bingen and the Wiesbaden codex of her Scivias, and Herrad of Hohenbourg’s Hortus deliciarum. But the more ordinary women who did more ordinary work have largely escaped notice.11


In this book, I propose a systematic approach to identifying the work of female copyists. I begin with the conviction that it is impossible to determine the sex of a scribe based on any supposed inherent difference in the handwriting of men and women. Female hands have been described variously as delicate, irregular, nervous, and light – judgments based on attitudes toward women rather than on sound paleographical evidence.12 Women at a particular scribal center may have been trained to write a highly distinctive book hand, but only its demonstrated use by female copyists marks that hand as feminine.13 I propose a more critical approach to identifying female hands that draws on a variety of sources including manuscript colophons, paleographical analysis, and references to female copyists in literary works and monastery records.

   The only definitive evidence of a scribe’s sex is a self-identification in a contemporary colophon, a written notice containing any combination of date, manuscript origin, or scribe’s name, but these are uncommon before the fifteenth century, and even then the increase is confined to certain regions.14 When a copyist’s name appears in a manuscript produced by a team, it is usually found at the beginning or end of the last gathering in the hand of that quire or group of quires and allows the positive identification of only that one hand as female. Slightly more common is a contemporary record of a scribe’s name written at the bottom of a folio at the beginning or end of a quire by a hand other than the text hand, sometimes in combination with the word scripsit. Since identification thus depends on a second party’s knowledge of the manuscript’s production, some element of doubt as to the copyist’s identity is introduced.15 A scribal identification written by a later hand is less secure still, especially if the writer relied on a traditional attribution to a particular scribe rather than on first-hand knowledge. Additional corroborating information, either paleographical or external, is needed before an attribution based on the later addition of a scribe’s name can be accepted.16

   Anonymous female scribes can sometimes be identified by their intimate collaboration with a named female scribe when hand changes occur within a quire. Scribes from a community of strictly enclosed canonesses or nuns must have had their own scriptorium, even if their work was subsequently supervised and corrected by one or more of the men.17 Cloistered women would not have worked side by side with monks or canons, and it is difficult, in this context, to imagine the collaboration of male and female copyists within quires. For this degree of collaboration to work in a cloistered setting, a gathering would have passed from the nuns’ enclosure into the monks’ scriptorium and back again, and in cases where hands alternate, this scenario would have been repeated several times. It is much more likely that cloistered nuns or canonesses worked together within quires with other women. This assumption allows for the provisional recognition of the work of a number of previously unidentified female collaborators.

   Once the hand of a named scribe or an unnamed female collaborator has been identified, it is sometimes possible to identify additional examples of her work. But a scribe was a person whose mood and pace of work, level of skill and age changed, preventing her from using uniform letter forms, abbreviations, and duct throughout her career. She might also adapt her writing to reflect changing stylistic concerns. To reflect the inherent uncertainty in scribal identifications, I have adopted the following terminology to describe the likelihood of a scribal match: very likely not identical, possibly identical, probably identical, very likely identical.18

   Non-manuscript evidence of the scribal skills of women can come in a variety of forms, and can help to document the existence of scriptoria at individual communities. A few necrologies from the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries record the names of female copyists. These death records consist simply of the woman’s name and the title scriba or scriptrix. Although it is seldom possible to isolate the work of these women among the surviving manuscripts produced at their communities, evidence from necrologies alerts us to the presence there of female scribes. Occasionally an author credits a religious woman with recording or transcribing his or her work, opening up the possibility of finding examples of the hands of women in the earliest copy of the text and in any subsequent authorial recensions. In several instances surviving correspondence to and from women’s communities contains a request that books be sent or copies be made, or a discussion of procuring materials needed for copying and illuminating. And in the unique case of Diemut of Wessobrunn, there is a contemporary list of the books she copied.

   Once a female scribe and, where possible, her books have been identified, the next step is to situate these in their institutional context. Here, her community provides insight into the training and employment of women in the scriptorium, the local importance of books, and the status of those who could help to produce them. The books, in turn, extend our knowledge of the community that made them. What can a manuscript copied by a woman tell us about her community? The archaeology of the book – its parchment, handwriting, construction, and other physical features – can yield information unavailable elsewhere about the community that created it. Did the monastery operate a school in which women were taught to write? Did they copy books for their own use, the use of their male counterparts, or for sale or exchange beyond the immediate community? Were women given inferior materials with which to work? What were the intellectual interests of the community? The working practices of individual scribes – speed of execution (as indicated by, for example, the degree of attention paid to calligraphic detail and consistency of form), level of productivity, type of texts copied, and patterns of collaboration with other scribes− tell us about the needs and circumstances of each community. Some manuscripts even provide clues as to the strictness of claustration and the extent of interaction between the sexes.


The female scribes of twelfth-century Bavaria were part of a long tradition of female involvement in monastic book production in Germany, beginning with the arrival of the Anglo-Saxon nuns involved with the missions of Saints Boniface and Lul. The evidence of the book-related activity of these early medieval women is a composite of brief moments of visibility pieced together from saints’ lives, monastic rules, correspondence, and manuscripts that bear witness to their interest in literary pursuits and in the production of books. The communities in which early medieval female scribes lived and worked were linked to their twelfth-century counterparts by a common interest in literary pursuits, and consequently, in assembling book collections.

A shared tradition of women’s education

Boniface’s German mission depended heavily upon a network of newly established religious houses to promote Christianity in recently evangelized rural areas, and English double monasteries were a primary source of people to colonize these outposts. The nuns who traveled to Germany to populate the new monastic centers are links in a strong tradition of education for religious women that can be traced at least as far back as the early fifth century, when St. Jerome wrote a letter to Laeta in response to her inquiry about the proper way to educate her daughter, Paula, who was destined for life as a virgin.19 He instructed Laeta to make Paula a set of letters of boxwood or ivory so that she might learn their order and sounds, and to guide her hand as she learned to write using a stylus and wax tablet.20 As she grew older, Paula was to be instructed in both Greek and Latin to facilitate her study of Scripture.21

   Expectations for female literacy in some religious houses in Merovingian Gaul were similarly high. The nuns of St. John at Arles, a women’s community founded in 512 by Bishop Caesarius (d. 543), followed a rule that included a precise schedule for devotional reading and that stipulated that girls were not to be admitted to the community until they were old enough to learn their letters. Most of the nuns at Arles were from either aristocratic or royal families – families that tended to value education, and Caesarius himself was a product of this milieu. His aristocratic views of literacy likely contributed to his insistence that his nuns learn to read and write.22 Caesarius’ hagiographer confirmed that these were critical activities at Arles, adding that the nuns copied sacred texts, a skill that they learned from their abbess.23

   Contemporary Irish monastic and cultural traditions also influenced the education and activities of nuns in Gaul. Monks from Luxeuil, St. Columbanus’ monastery in Gaul, supported the expansion of women’s monasticism in the seventh century and were involved directly with several important foundations.24 A network of Frankish double monasteries, including Jouarre, Faremoutiers, Chelles, Notre-Dame de Soissons, and Notre-Dame de Laon began to grow under the influence of Luxeuil.25 The hagiographers of nun- and abbess-saints from these communities also considered intellectual gifts to be evidence of female sanctity, and education generally was thought to encourage spiritual growth by facilitating devotional reading and scriptural study. This connection between learning and sanctity, which tells us as much about hagiographer as about saint, is consistently made from the sixth through the ninth century. Literacy could provide religious women with an outlet for good works as teachers and scribes, even from within the confines of the cloister. Among the books produced at these centers are a number that bear the name of a female scribe or scribes.

   The positive evaluation of the spiritual benefits of reading common to both the Caesarian and Columbanian monastic traditions was transmitted also through absorption into several seventh-century rules for women. Aurelian of Arles and two monks from Luxeuil, Donatus and Waldebert, wrote rules for nuns that combined educational elements of both traditions.26

   By the end of the century, a growing number of double houses followed the Rule of Saint Benedict, which also mandated both private and communal reading.27 In his commentary on Benedict’s Rule, written around the middle of the ninth century, Hildemar stated that literate adults were to gather in the cloister where they were to sit apart during the periods of lectio. They were expected not only to read, but to demonstrate some degree of comprehension before receiving a new book.28 Children were expected to read in a supervised group in which, presumably, instruction might be offered.29

   The monasteries adhering to these rules provided a favorable climate for the intellectual activities of nuns in Gaul. According to Bede, many daughters of the English aristocracy entered the monasteries of Merovingian Gaul in the seventh century, and the king of Kent, Earconberht (d. 664), sent his daughter Earcongota to Brie to become a nun at Faremoutiers.30 Before she became abbess of Hartlepool in Northumbria and later first abbess of Whitby, Hild had planned to travel to Gaul to join her sister Hereswitha at Chelles.31

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