Margaret Laird would have us remember the work and commitment that went into producing a book in the days before printing and what this meant for the seriousness with which it would be read and studied

Some weeks before Lent, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York launched an initiative to inspire Christians to take a fresh look at ways of observing Lent. By the time this article appears, readers of New Directions will already be practising some form of self-denial, or if they are following the Archbishops’ advice, undertaking some form of good deeds.

In accordance with Church tradition, many will also be attempting, through theological and devotional reading, to deepen their understanding of the Faith and to make progress in their spiritual lives. These days, the choice of edifying books for Lent can prove difficult, not because they are unavailable but simply because the possibilities are endless. Books on theology and spirituality abound, both newly published works as well as those firmly rooted in the Christian tradition.

What a book was

Consider how different things were when books were not easily obtainable, because they were written and copied by hand, and when a whole flock of sheep was required to provide skins for the parchment of a single book – only a few pages could be produced from one sheepskin. Other animals, including wild ones which had to be hunted, were needed to provide leather for binding. This took weeks to prepare and even then, it often offered resistance to the quill or pen. The completion of a book was a great event and just as a new church building was dedicated with special prayers, so a book when finished was offered to God with an appropriate liturgy.

Accept, O Holy Trinity, the offering of this book…’ chanted the monks (in Latin), continuing with intercessions for the brethren who had prepared the parchment, for the monks who had done the writing, copying and illustrating, for those who would read the book, and finally for the future generations who would own it. To have produced a book was considered as valuable as building a church. In some ways, it was a greater achievement, for a church building serves only the local community, whereas the influence of a book can be far-reaching.

An abbot of the great monastery of Cluny, Peter the Venerable once wrote, Tn the furrows traced by a monk on a parchment, he will sow the seeds of divine words… He will preach without opening his mouth; without breaking his silence, he will make the Lords teaching resound in the ears of the nations and without leaving the monastery, he will journey over land and sea.’

The use of study

As a book was a highly valued possession, it was vital to make the most of it. To ensure that it received the reader’s whole attention, ‘reading it’ involved speaking, listening, thinking and remembering. The eyes saw the words, the mouth pronounced them aloud, the ears listened to the words, which the monks called ‘the voices of the page,’ and the memory fixed and understood them, while the will desired to put into practice what had been learned. Doctors in ancient and medieval times recommended reading as a physical exercise because it was claimed ‘it involved the body and the mind’; one learned with one’s whole being.

Monastic libraries contained both classical and religious works, because any scholarly text was regarded with reverence. It was customary on Ash Wednesday for abbots to issue their brothers with books for Lent, but rarely were there sufficient religious ones to go round. The late Rosalind Hill, once Professor of Medieval History at London University, often referred to a monk who was issued with Livy’s History of Rome for his Lenten reading. Disappointed, he explained to the abbot that he did not consider that this would help his spiritual progress.

‘My son,’ the abbot replied, ‘do you believe that God is the source of all truth?’ ‘That I do believe,’ said the monk. ‘Then,’ said the abbot, ‘all scholarly books contain God’s truth and you will find moral and spiritual lessons in Livy as well as in the book of Leviticus, if you are prepared to search for them. The revelations of God’s truth cannot be restricted to the Scriptures.’ This brief dialogue demonstrates that in the Middle Ages, the work of the genuine scholar in any field of study was read appreciatively.

So, when a medieval religious or scholar studied a book, sacred or secular, it involved his whole being, and this reflective approach did not merely inform him but formed him. All the learning he or she acquired in this way was offered to God, like the books from which it had been derived.


These methods of study needed a level of concentration which is rare in contemporary society, when it is commonly assumed, for example, that reading and writing may be done against (or even require) a musical background. In medieval times, it was assumed that the discipline and perseverance practised in order to achieve the art of ‘learning with one’s whole being’ improved the quality of life, and as has already been noted, strengthened the Christian character but, above all, it gave scholars, monks and nuns, an excellent working knowledge and understanding of theology. It was this which, when heresy threatened the Church, enabled them to defend and thus preserve the Catholic faith. Reasserting the truths of the historic faith of Christendom is still the most effective way of defeating attempts to undermine.

These medieval attitudes to learning seem strange in the twenty-first century, when it is impossible to ignore the developments in technology, educational theories and scientific ways of thinking which separates us from that earlier age. Yet these medieval methods worked, and there is much to admire in them; they encouraged a love of learning and a commitment to theological study, a high level of concentration, respect for genuine scholarship, both religious and secular; and (at this time of the year) a desire and serious intent to observe Lent as a holy season, for making real progress in the spiritual life.