St Gregory at the Scriptorium: A Brief History of Manuscript Making at Worcester

The known history of Anglo-Saxon libraries and scriptoria (places in which manuscripts were written, copied and illuminated) is scanty at best. Christianity – which was reintroduced into England by Celtic missionaries and by the Gregorian Mission in 597 – was a religion of the written word: its priests required liturgical books for public prayer, so it is no wonder that the first libraries in the country could be found in religious houses.[1] Worcester, which was founded as a bishopric in 680, probably acquired the necessary books straight away from the Continent. It is not known exactly when it started to produce its own manuscripts, but there are a few early examples that are still kept in the library today.


Gregory’s Pastoral  Rule fragment of the 8th Century in Worcester Cathedral. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)


This is a leaf from St Gregory’s Regula Pastoralis dating from the eighth century, which may well have been written at Worcester itself. Medieval manuscripts can sometimes be located and dated through clues in their style of writing; this one is a beautiful example of a semi-uncial ‘insular’ hand, typical of this region in the eighth century. The rounded letters and significant gaps between words make it easier to read than other medieval styles, and show the influence of the Irish school of handwriting on the scribes at Worcester. [2]

Why, you may ask, did the monks copy manuscripts? The medieval practice of reading and copying religious works started with the efforts of Cassiodorus, a Roman noble and Christian living in the sixth century. After witnessing the destruction of Rome’s great (pagan) libraries by invading Vandals, Cassiodorus founded a monastery at his private estate in southern Italy. His aim was to provide a sheltered programme for monks who could read, copy and study scripture, in a task both useful and spiritually rewarding.[3] This monastery, which was called ‘Vivarium’, was a forerunner of the monastic libraries of the Middle Ages.

Why did the monks at Worcester choose to copy Gregory’s works? As already mentioned, it was under Pope Gregory that Christianity came to Britain. In the two centuries following his death in 604, his writings – which were plainer, simpler and less demanding than those of St Augustine or St Jerome – were copied more than any others in Western Europe. Of the four eighth-century book fragments which survive at Worcester Cathedral, two of them, both written in England, contain the works of St Gregory.[4] When King Alfred undertook a programme of English translation in the ninth century, St Gregory was among the authors he deemed most necessary for men to know, along with the works of Boethius, Augustine, Orosius, Bede and others. He commissioned Wærferth, Bishop of Worcester, to translate a copy of Gregory’s Dialogi into English; this version is now kept in the Bodleian library in Oxford.[5]

Scriptorium now

The north cloister of Worcester Cathedral. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

Although nothing remains of the original Anglo-Saxon church at Worcester, we can still see evidence of the scriptorium used in the Middle Age Priory. The north alley of the cloisters, with its wall facing south and thus benefiting from the most sunlight during the day, was the location of the scriptorium. There is a stone bench fitted along the wall, and a row of desks would probably have run parallel to it. It is thought that armaria (closed, labelled cupboards for book storage), fitted into twin recesses in the eastern alley of the cloister, would have been used initially to house the books. These recesses are big enough for 5 shelves each, providing enough storage space for roughly 400-440 volumes in all.[6]

It is very difficult, however, to determine which books would have been in the Cathedral at any given time.[7] Books could have been made at Worcester in order to be sent elsewhere in the country or to the Continent; it is clear that books found their way to Worcester from other medieval centres of learning. We know that books were sometimes given as gifts to visitors to the Priory; conversely, others were donated to the library by individuals, and we know that the library absorbed the private collections of priors and bishops.

The leaves of Gregory’s Regula Pastoralis seen above, however, did not sit intact on a shelf in the library for twelve centuries. Like countless other Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, it was considered to be scrap and was used in the binding of a later book. The picture below illustrates how older pages (in this case, a handwritten manuscript possibly from the fifteenth century) were reused to strengthen the binding of a newer printed book (here a 1541 edition of Josephus).

fragment in book

Late medieval fragment found in the binding of a printed copy of Jospehus from 1541 in Worcester Cathedral. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)


These scant but illuminating pieces of evidence – from the eighth-century fragments of Gregory’s text, to the stone benches of the medieval scriptorium – allow us a glimpse into the fascinating world of monastic book production.


Rosie Pugh

[1] Michael Lapidge, The Anglo-Saxon Library (OUP, 2006), p. 15.

[2] Cuthbert Hamilton Turner (ed.), Early Worcester MSS: Fragments of Four Books and a Charter of the Eighth Century Belonging to Worcester Cathedral (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1916), p. xviii-xx.

[3] Matthew Battles, Library: An Unquiet History (Heinemann, 2003), p. 59.

[4] Cuthbert Hamilton Turner, Op. cit., p. xx.

[5] See Michael Lapidge, Op. cit., pp. 45-50, and Cuthbert Hamilton Turner, Op. cit., p. xxi.

[6] R. M. Thomson, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval Manuscripts in Worcester Cathedral Library (D. S. Brewer, 2001), p. xxxii.

[7] See N. R. Ker, Medieval Libraries of Great Britain: A List of Surviving Books, 2nd ed. (London: Royal Historical Society, 1964).



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