Note on the Word “Scriptorium” in Coptic Sources

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.

10615448_10152536511511621_8951231104159969868_nAs 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.


About Alin Suciu

I am a researcher at the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities. I write mostly on Coptic literature, Patristics, and apocryphal texts.
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5 Responses to Note on the Word “Scriptorium” in Coptic Sources

  1. I am honored that you would write a blog post about our logo! Thank you. Indeed, the phrase we chose is made-up. I completely agree with you and your colleague about the extremely sparse evidence for scriptoria. I confess I am somewhat gratified to see that you also found only two possible references to anything resembling “scriptorium” in the sources.
    We spent a lot of time debating whether to include Coptic at all in the logo, since there was no equivalent Coptic word or phrase for our project’s title. We love Coptic script, and our designer also encouraged us to use some Coptic, so we decided to create our own phrase. Since the project is nothing anyone has ever seen before and exists in a medium the scribes could never have predicted, we decided that the unicorn and a neologism would work perfectly. We also really like the symmetry of the red C in English and Coptic.

  2. Amir Zeldes says:

    Many thanks from me too, I’m also glad to see it’s not just us, but the answer to the question “how to say scriptorium in Coptic” is really not so clear. We went back and forth with a few options for the logo and, being a speaker of modern Hebrew, this reminded me a little of how new words are coined in the language when the Bible and medieval literature come up short. Funnily enough it turns out we did something similar here: while we looked for a ‘pure Coptic’ (or better ‘Egyptian’) way of saying ‘place of writing’, it turns out the actual nearest terms which you mention in the post all involve words of Greek origin: bibliotheke, grapheus and kalligraphos. So much like the Hebrew revivalists, we ignored the natural tendency to borrow, which Coptic is famous for, and tried to go ad fontes 🙂 If the Coptic revival movement were more successful, I think we’d see a lot of discussions like this, about ‘how to say X in Coptic’ (though probably it would be in Bohairic)

  3. An additional question is whether one can find any evidence whatsoever of an amanuensis and diorthetes collaborating with a scribe to produce manuscripts in an ancient Christian scriptorium. From my reading of Lantschoot, we encounter instances where we have one scribe working with one manuscript, and no mention of a reader, corrector or second manuscript. The relevant issue that I am raising has less to do with the word scriptorium itself, and more to do with the baggage associated with the technical term. While monasteries may have included a room where manuscripts were stored and perhaps produced, they did not apparently support the procedure in which one scribe or group of scribes copy a text read by an amanuensis from a primary exemplar, and afterward a diorthetes corrects the newly-produced manuscript against a second exemplar.

  4. Lantschoot XCI.
    ‘In this year, the 9th indiction, when we copied all the words written in the fourth book ….* of Shenoute to this book which we have written anew in the …
    * Chassinat thought that the phrase ‘arkhaios nlogos’ might refer to the first ‘edition’ of the work, but Lantschoot believes it means simply ‘old’. I like Chassinat’s idea, but this may be informed by romantic imagination more than anything else.
    Crum has a couple of references to women scribes, but not necessarily in monasteries.
    The term used of writing a book or paying for one to be made is ‘smine’ (CD 338a).
    My guess is that books were also produced outside the monasteries and subsequently donated.

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