If you are not yet familiar with Carrie Schroeder and Amir Zeldes’ “Coptic Scriptorium” you should visit the new website of this important Coptological project. The platform has recently received a lovely new design.
As you can see in the photo above, the header of the website contains on the right-hand side the title of the project, “Coptic Scriptorium,” while on the opposite side features what is supposed to be the Coptic Sahidic word for “scriptorium,” PMA NTMNTSHAI. While this syntagm is grammatically correct, it has one problem: it is not attested in any original Coptic document. But did Coptic have a word or formula to designate the place within the monastery where the manuscripts were copied by the scribes? Crum does not mention such a term in his dictionary and I am not aware of any other study that would tackle the problem. However, I think there are at least two possible occurrences of some such syntagm in Coptic documents. As the sources are rather meager, the question deserves to be addressed here.
Until recently, I did not find the problem very relevant. I thought that the existence of Coptic monastic scriptoria is self-evident and I did not try to find out how the Copts actually called the place where the professional copyists produced books. However, some months ago I received a message from a Jerusalem-based colleague, who works on monastic scriptoria in late antique and early medieval eastern Mediterranean area. I understood that she intends to argue in a paper that there is no evidence whatsoever in Coptic, Syriac and Greek sources that ancient monasteries dedicated a special place for the manufacture of manuscripts. The codices were rather inscribed by monks in their private cells. Therefore, she found it interesting that in one of my articles I referred to a colophon of a Sahidic manuscript that would mention a scriptorium.
I confess that, although I was initially puzzled by the hypothesis that ancient monasteries did not have scriptoria, I began to pay more attention to it when I realized that the evidence is indeed poor. This does not mean, however, that I agree with my colleague. I do not know if scriptoria are mentioned in Greek and Syriac sources, but I am confident that the colophons of at least two Sahidic codices from the Monastery of Shenoute seem to contain references to such a place. Both of them are available in Arnold van Lantschoot, Recueil des colophons des manuscrits chrétiens d’Égypte, Bibliothèque du Muséon 1, Louvain 1929. Here they are:
- Van Lantschoot, Colophons, 127-131 (= no. LXXVII). This colophon has survived on two fragments in the National Library in Paris, BnF Copte 1317, f. 35v and BnF Copte 1321, f. 66. The scribe of the manuscript was a certain Raphael, who says that he completed the transcription on Paone 12, 807 Diocletian Era, 486 Era of the Saracens (= June 6, 1091 CE), “while my brother, the deacon Matthew, was with me in the scriptorium” (TBIBLIOTHYKE [sic!] NTMNTGRAPHEUS), literally, “library of copyist-ship.” While it is true that the meaning of the phrase is not immediately obvious, I think we can be quite confident that Raphael refers to the place where the professional scribes carried their work.
- Van Lantschoot, Colophons, 153-155 (= no. XCI). This is the colophon of IFAO 1 (CMCL siglum, MONB.XH), a White Monastery manuscript containing works of Shenoute. It can tentatively be dated on paleographical grounds to the late seventh-early eighth centuries CE. The scribe mentions that the transcription was completed while Apa Peter was in charge of “the house of the scribes” (PHI NNGALIOGRAPHOS [sic!]).
Now, I imagine that “the house of the scribes” designates, in a way or another, the scriptorium. We know that, just like in the Pachomian monasteries, the monks of the White Monastery were organized according to their crafts in separate houses led by a housemaster, in which they lived and probably also exercised their skills. The colophon of MONB.XH is of special importance as it supplies evidence that the scribes of the Monastery of Shenoute had their own house. In conclusion, “the house of the scribes” which features in the colophon of IFAO 1 designates the place where the scribes lived and which in all likelihood served also as scriptorium.
To the best of my knowledge, these are the only attestations in Coptic documents of what seems to be a scriptorium. The fact that the same place is designated differently in the two colophons is probably due to the fact that they are separated chronologically by approximately 400 years.
From this point on we can only speculate. It is possible that the BIBLIOTHYKE NTMNTGRAPHEUS is a more appropriate denominator of the scriptorium, being that special room in the “house of the scribes” where the professional copyists worked and probably kept the books used as models for the newly inscribed manuscripts.