Parameters of real mediaeval books

Anyone know a good source on real mediaeval books and scribing? I would like to know how many words a typical mediaeval book was, how many words to a typical page and how long a page would take to write for a typical book. I know there is no such thing as a typical book but anyone know of any examples of this sort of information?

Many of these texts are available on Project Gutenberg. For word count at least you can just get it using your favourite word processor.

There are many books about the general process of making medieval books: making parchment, ink, colours, folding the parchment to sexterns or other leaflets, preparing the parchment and quills, the process of writing, illustrating and binding. There you can just take your pick. How's this for an easy start: ... 175&sr=8-5 ?

Information about the 'performance' of medieval scribes is far harder to obtain. You need a source minded to record such information first, after all. An example of such a source is the Chronicle of Burkard Zink, as printed 1866 in Die Chroniken der schwäbischen Städte: Augsburg, Band 2 von Königlich Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften. Historische Kommission. it is available on google ( ... 3406333885 , p. 367ff, too. There is also a French translation of the autobiographical part of the chronicle: E. Fick, Bourkard Zink et sa Chronique d‘Augsbourg, Genève 1868, pp. 77-108, which some libraries in France perhaps might have.
Reading this source, you will understand that nobody can really generalize from such examples and make categorical statements on the number of words, pages of a certain format or sexterns that somebody could write in a certain quality at a given time - beyond perhaps saying 'a few hundred words per day, and some more if somebody really puts effort into it'.


Only a few hundred words per day? That's like ... a word per minute, possibly even less! I'm not disputing the number -- I have no knowledge of the subject -- but it does seem very low. The Old testament alone has over half a million words. That would mean of the order of a thousand days, i.e. three solid years of non-stop work, to copy it.

You try to make numbers from rough indications - always a mistake.
But the rough dimensions you've derived are right again.
it was worthy of note, when Bergognomus de Nigraxi 1220/21 copied the bible in 15 months. And the monks of Stavelot took four years (1093-1097) to write, illuminate and bind the two volume Stavelot bible, today in the British Library.
As for more popular culture, albeit really outstanding one: Looking up the penance of Kirill in Tarkovski's Andrei Rublev, IIRC you will find he is sentenced to copy the bible 15 times, when allowed to reenter his monastery after some life not deemed worthy of a monk. That was a sentence 'for life', not meant for him to ever achieve.


Here's a quote from ... book1.html, which seems relevant, and has the merit of giving actual numbers:

"In order to produce the large numbers of textbooks required by students and maintain their textual accuracy, the pecia system of copying was instituted.[24] The system began in about 1200 and ended in about 1350 in the North, and about 1425-50 in the South. It existed in at least eleven universities (seven in Italy, two in France, and one each in Spain and England) and probably many others. The stationer held one or more exact copies (the exemplar) of a text in pieces (hence pecia), usually a gathering of four folios (sixteen columns) or perhaps six folios. Each column had to have a certain number of lines (usually sixty), and each line a certain number of letters (usually thirty). Each exemplar was examined to ensure it was correct, and any exemplar found to be incorrect resulted in a fine for the stationer. Each part was rented out for a specific time (a week at Bologna) so that students, or scribes, could copy them. This way a number of students could be copying parts of the same book at the same time. Stationers were required to rent pieces to anyone who requested them, and the charges were fixed (e.g., at Treviso in 1318 the charges were six pence for copying, and two pence for correcting). The size of books began to decline, and script became more compact and the number of abbreviations increased. The two-column format became the norm, and ornament was almost abandoned on all books with the exception of the luxury trade. Soft cover bindings tended to replace wooden boards, and parchment became progressively thinner as the number of folios per gathering increased.

[24] See Jean Destrez, La pecia dans les manuscrits universitaires du XIIIe et du XIVe siècle (Paris: Editions Jaques Vautrains, 1935); and Graham Pollard, "The Pecia System in the Medieval Universities," in Medieval Scribes, Manuscripts and Libraries: Essays Presented to N.R. Ker, ed. M.B. Parkes and A.G. Watson (London: Scolar Press, 1978), pp. 145-61; Louis J. Bataillon, Bertran G. Guyot, and Richard H. Rouse, eds., La production du livre universitaire au moyen âge: exemplar et pecia, Acts du symposium tenu au Collegio San Bonaventura de Grottaferrata, May 1983 (Paris: Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1991). "

To me, this suggests two things:

  • the canon Ars Magica period is right at the beginning of a new model for copying books, one that was more interested in quantity and less in quality. Whether a particular covenant adopts it (or is still using the traditional method of one scribe copying one book) is up to the troupe, of course. But suddenly it becomes possible to work on more than one copy of a book at the same time.
  • the expectation was that a student or scribe would take one week to copy four folios, that is sixteen columns of of sixty lines by thirty letters. That's 28,800 letters in a week, or about 5,760 words (with the modern convention of 5 letters equals one word for the measurement of typing speed). Assuming someone works 6 days a week, that is still less than one thousand words a day. Earlier in the page the author mentions that a scribe in a monastery would work for about 6 hours a day, between the need for daylight and his other duties (prayer mostly). Assuming that remains true in this later period, that comes to 160 words an hour, or 13 letters a minute, or about four and a half seconds per letters. Remember, copying is slower that writing, because you have to constantly shift between reading the text and writing the copy.

And remember, this system was instituted with the goal of making large number of exact copies available. This is no longer Benedictine monks for whom the very act of copying was a prayer, and who put more illuminations on a page than actual text; those were students copying books for their personal use, and scribes paid by those rich enough to foist the work onto others...

It's a mistake only when you could have better indications. Otherwise it's called engineering :slight_smile:

Ah, nice. If Bergognomous worked obsessively on his task, and it took him 5 seasons of work, then at the "standard" Ars Magica pace of 2 work seasons / year the average monk would copy the Bible over 2.5 years. Using the same "standard" pace, 1 work season for binding and 1 for illumination would take 1 more year for a total of 3.5 years for the Stavelot bible. Close enough.

The Bible is about 750.000 - 800.000 words long. Thus, a season of work probably means copying (carefully) about 150.000 words (let's say between 100.000 and 200.000). This should then be the average length of a Tractatus or short Summa, with long Summae possibly being twice as long.

This matches the numbers given by One Shot to amazing precision. 5760 words/week per 52 weeks yields slightly less than 300.000 words per year, and thus again 150.000 words per "work season" at the "standard" Ars Magica pace of 2 work seasons/year.

Remember. we're not talking about short hand here. We're talking about calligraphy. I've done calligraphy, with the whole dipping a pen in an inkwell and painstakingly drawing each letter. I suck at it. I doubt I managed to finish a whole word properly, much less do a word in a minute.

The Stavelot bible is the output of a monastic workshop, with likely several scribes working on the same high profile high prestige copy. These scribes are calligraphers in all respects.
While copies from rented pecia were for the private use of the students who made them, and could be as incomplete, unreadable and idiosyncratic in their shorthands as the students liked. But usually these were no competent scribes anyway.
Both Burkard Zink and Bergognomus copied alone, both worked continuously - and their copies were meant to be read by their respective patrons, hence had to look decent. So these are more utilitarian calligraphers - and in this respect of our three groups the closest to covenant workshops or magi.
Besides: a competent modern day calligrapher, writing carolingian minuscule, can write some 4-8 sheets at 32 lines each in a day - so that is around the output of the student hack you have computed above, and roughly matches the daily output of Burkard Zink during his first week of copying the Compendium Theologiae of St. Thomas. Of course the modern calligrapher works in a far better environment, especially wrt lighting, than all of the above did. (Cf. Alfred Czech: In mittelalterlichen Schreibwerkstätten p.35, MPZ Munich, ISBN 3 929862 52 2).


The numbers given sound about right to me also.

My wife does calligraphy and illumination as a hobby. She is fairly good at calligraphy, and better at illumination.

She can complete the calligraphy for one page in about 3 hours. That's about 4 short paragraphs, or 200 words. And that is using modern metal nibs and high-quality ink. You have to remember that most medieval sribes used quill (goose feathers). You have to dip your quill in the ink for each letter, taking care that the amount of ink collected is just right. You have to resharpen it regularly. You have to be careful to to touch any part that you've just written, because the ink doesn't dry immediately (it takes a few hours).

Illumination take about a day of work for each page, but this is spread out over several days (sometime weeks) as you have to prepare a layout based on how much text will be included on the page, trace out the design, appply each color seperately and wait for each to dry before moving on, apply gold leaf (which by itself can take longer if you want raised gilding), etc.

here's a fun page:
Master Hildebertus the scribe, with Everwinus the apprentice at his feet, defends his breakfast from a mouse. Just as we talk about work conditions in scriptoria around 1140.

And here's a link to the good Wiki entry on the Stavelot bible: . So we know all what we are talking about.

Thanks to everyone to has contributed so far: this is all really useful to me (and my playing group). :smiley: