Inventing the office: Table, book and scriptorium

Office History Arts and Culture Office Trends

What marked the beginnings of the office? Offices play an important role in our modern world. The majority of today's work is carried out in the office.

Here, companies are managed, political agendas pursued, research activities conducted and global processes initiated. Other work spaces including physician's offices and classrooms or interspaces such as foyers, aircraft and cafes are now increasingly turning into offices, too.

Traditional offices are used to oversee accounting and sales activities, to manage production and purchasing, as well as administration and distribution. Furthermore, users of modern offices manage intellectual products such as logistics, work processes or design, along with a myriad of projects which don't necessarily involve any material goods at all.

What marked the beginnings of the office? Where are its origins and how did it develop?
Born 800 years ago, the office was first invented by monks. Looking back on a centuries-long history, in the 13th century it became a professional institution.

The monastery

The history of the office began in a monastery. Here, around 400 A.D., Saint Jerome, a monk, translated the Old Testament into Latin. Over the following centuries many monasteries commissioned copies of Jerome's writing – the Vulgate, which later became the accepted standard.

Monasteries are enterprises; religious, social and economic places of production which generate material and intellectual goods. They help to preserve ancient culture by copying and translating old papyrus and parchment rolls – the oldest forms of books – and by propagating ideas.

Life in a monastery is subject to strict monastic rule. The function of such rules is to create a uniform institution, encouraging commitment and vita communis or communal life – a variant of modern-day team work.

Members of a monastery follow a strict, ascetic lifestyle, think morally and plan their work carefully. As a result, most monasteries are not only cultural centres but also wealthy institutions. In addition, abbots were often more respected than kings, noblemen and bishops, and had more power.

The three elements of the office

From the beginning, the office has been defined by three elements: book, table and space. These objects complement one another and have remained essential office tools until today. Other accessories, though having changed their shapes throughout history, include paper, ink, erasers, leather, containers, colour and quill pens. Nonetheless, today the most essential office tool is the computer.

The book

The book, one of the key items in the office, had to be placed onto a piece of furniture, requiring a room. Books are believed to have played an important role in the cultural development of the Western World. Repositories of culture, they preserve, hone and develop cultural knowledge and skills. Scrolls were later replaced by the Roman Codex, a form of book that gained particular importance in the third century. It consist of parchment sheets which are folded, stacked and loosely pasted together at the back. Monks were only able to produce bound books from the 13th century onward, following the invention of paper. These early works were written by hand, with the first letter on each page revealing intricate ornamentation. The book covers, made of wood, were lined with leather and lavishly decorated.

The table

The discovery of the office coincides with that of the cloth-covered table. The table consisted of two blocks covered with boards. To avoid damaging the precious book covers, monks usually applied two methods: They placed a piece of cloth between the table and the book, also known as the burra, which forms the origins of "bureau", the French word for office (its modern English usage referring to a writing table, a government department or a services/news office) . Alternatively, they inserted five nails into the book cover to prevent it from coming into contact with the rough table boards. The nails lent the cover a special appearance.

Only from the 13th century onward, were tables provided with lecterns. In Renaissance paintings Jerome poses on a chair, facing such a lectern. However, during his lifetime there were neither chairs, lecterns nor bound books.

The space

The third element of interest is the space itself. Previously referred to as a writing room or scriptorium in Latin, (from "scribere" - to write), the place where books were written took its name from the aforementioned cloth, which was placed between the table and the book: burra – the cloth of the cowl. In the 17th century bureau referred to a table covered by cloth, whereas later in the 19th century the French adopted the name for the space where the cloth-covered table stood. The name reflects the combined use of the work space and the table.

The office

In the 13th century, medieval society began to change. The bourgeoisie gradually increased its political influence through trade and handicraft, while monks discovered nature and the world of perception. These developments marked the birth of scholastic philosophies in the Middle Ages. Convent schools and universities were established in newly founded cities, strictly separating science from Christian beliefs. Science, hitherto based on the doctrines of the Bible, now turned to the world of human perception, nature, morality and to biology. This development led to the separation between philosophy and faith, which in turn gave rise to new methods and theories, heralding in the beginning of the modern world one century later.

With the advent of these new scholastic centres, book production increased tremendously, giving birth to the profession of the writer. Academic studies at that time involved the writing of books. To qualify for exams one had to generate three to four books as part of the university curriculum. On account of their office skills, monks later managed estates and civic enterprises. Since the 13th century, the combination of the book and cloth has been used as an instrument for learning, knowledge and organisation, having a tremendous impact on Western culture. With the emergence of the professional writer, the office was established as a separate space – even if not yet labelled with its current name.

The 13th century saw the gradual emergence of Bible commentaries and individual writings, coinciding with a growing interest in education and science, which was to usher in the era of Renaissance. Today, learning about ancient culture has again gained in popularity. Stripped of its religious roots, the office continues to stake out its position in our modern world.

What can we learn from monasteries?

The most important contribution of monasteries lies in their commitment to culture and society. Apart from providing pastoral care, nuns and monks were responsible for guarding ancient cultural goods. Consequently, from the very beginning office work was closely tight to cultural work. Monasteries were particularly successful and became thriving businesses, whenever they adopted monastic rule. This trend gave rise to monasticism as a uniform idea which encourages communal achievement or vita communis – the origins of modern-day team work. Monasteries soon adopted social responsibility, practicing team work, a rational lifestyle, disciplined office work and moral responsibility in the form of commitment to society, nature and the human being. They became successful examples for modern civic life.


Hajo Eickhoff