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The following line occurs in an early Christian commentary on Genesis:

Quid est enim aliud hodieque gens ipsa, nisi quaedam scrinaria Christianorum, bajulans legem et prophetas ad testimonium assertionis Ecclesiae, ut nos honoremus per sacramentum, quod nuntiat illa per litteram?

The word scrinaria puzzles me. I have not found it in any Latin dictionary, but I suspect it is related to either scrinium (=a desk or chest) or scriniarius (=keeper of the scrinium).

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    Update of interest: Augustine makes a similar remark in his polemic against Faustus of Mileve but spells the word slightly differently: "Quid est enim aliud hodieque gens ipsa nisi quaedam scriniaria Christianorum" la.wikisource.org/wiki/Contra_Faustum_Manichaeum/XII
    – Moshe Wise
    Nov 4, 2022 at 2:23
  • For the Contra Faustum 'scriniaria Christianorum', the Christian Literature Company translation renders 'a desk for the Christians' en.wikisource.org/wiki/Nicene_and_Post-Nicene_Fathers:_Series_I/… .
    – Moshe Wise
    Nov 4, 2022 at 2:42
  • In an earlier version of this question I erroneously attributed the 'scrinaria' quotation to Augustine of Hippo. My apologies.
    – Moshe Wise
    Nov 4, 2022 at 3:14
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    @Asteroides My question is about an anonymous commentary on Genesis which borrows Augustine's image but changes Augustine's 'scriniaria' to 'scrinaria.' I confused the anonymous author with his source.
    – Moshe Wise
    Nov 4, 2022 at 3:54
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    I think the difference between "scriniaria" and "scrinaria" is just a textual variant ... I wouldn't be surprised if different manuscripts of the same text might differ on this point. It's hard to see these as different words rather than different spellings of the same word
    – Asteroides
    Nov 4, 2022 at 3:55

3 Answers 3

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I agree with Sebastian Koppehel that scrinaria in the quoted passage is a feminine singular noun derived from scrinium and the suffix -arius, -aria, -arium; this means scrinaria = scriniaria.

The omission of i after the n has no explanation in terms of the standard Latin rules of word-formation, and does not seem to be significant with respect to the meaning of the word. The spelling scrinaria might be due to accidental omission of the letter i when writing the word, or an irregular alteration in the form of the word.

-arius, -aria, -arium: a suffix that derives nouns with the form of adjectives

This suffix is a bit funny. It has the form (or morphology) of an adjective ending, but many words ending in -arius, -aria, -arium are used more frequently as substantive nouns than as attributive modifiers of other words. The masculine forms in -arius (genitive singular -arii) usually are used as the names of occupations or professions, and are highly productive in this function: thus, ferrarius = "blacksmith", gallinarius = "keeper of poultry", etc.

The gender of a form ending in -arius, -aria, -arium can sometimes be explained by interpreting it as an adjective in agreement with an "implicit" head noun: thus, aurarius used as a noun "goldsmith" could be interpreted as standing for something like "(artifex) aurarius" or "(faber) aurarius". But it isn't always clear what the implicit accompanying noun would be.

This can make the interpretation of forms a little tricky.

Scrin(i)aria probably means "Female keeper of scrinia/keeper of the scrinium"

The suggestion in Sebastian Koppehel's answer that scrinaria is feminine in agreement with gens seems plausible to me, and is in agreement with the translation "a keeper of the records" cited in Tyler Durden's answer. This is also the explanation given by Paula Fredriksen in "Anti-Judaism and Early Christianity" (Marginalia, December 9, 2013, review of David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition), where the word scriniaria is glossed as "[female] librarian". Fredriksen also points out there that "desks" is a mistranslation of the Latin.

It seems Fredriksen has also rendered scriniaria as "bookslave" (in Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism, 2010), according to Figuring Racism in Medieval Christianity, by Lindsay Kaplan, 2019 (page 33). That translation seems to be intended to convey the overall meaning of the specific passage where the word occurs (Kaplan, page 187, provides a quote where Fredriksen (2010, page 320) argues that Augustine here is portraying the Jews as "servile book caretakers"). I don't think "bookslave" is as accurate a translation of scrin(i)aria when considered in isolation: words ending in -arius/-aria could refer to slaves, but they did not systematically denote slaves as opposed to other types of craftsmen or workers.

The meaning of scrinium "chest" (plural scrinia)

It seems a bit tricky to give a precise definition of the word scrinium. The basic literal sense seems to be chest; this can have the sense of letter-box or box of records. According to The Diplomas of King Aethlred 'the Unready' 978-1016, by Simon Keynes (1980):

The word scriniarius is ambiguous, denoting either 'archivist' or 'custodian of books' from the primary meaning of scrinium ('chest, for storage of books') or 'keeper or custodian of relics' from its secondary meaning ('reliquary' or 'shrine'). It was apparently the second meaning of scriniarius that was intended by the Abingdon glossarist, with an extension to cover the guardianship of precious things in general.

(page 147)

In the context of the passage quoted in your question, the "archivist" or "keeper of books/documents" sense surely fits, but perhaps it would also fit to view the word as having some connotation of "keeper of treasure/precious things".

Feminine singular nouns in -aria can sometimes have an impersonal or abstract sense; possibly it could be read as "collection/repository of scrinia"

I think an alternative possibility is that scrin(i)aria could refer to a place or location (used metaphorically in this case). Some nouns ending in -aria have that kind of meaning, such as auraria "gold-mine" or libraria "collection of books". In that case, scrin(i)aria would have a sense more like "collection/archive of scrinia". But this seems less plausible to me than the interpretation given by Paula Fredriksen and Sebastian Koppehel.

Some nouns ending in -aria have multiple possible meanings; e.g. see the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources's definition of cameraria (available via Logeion).

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    @TylerDurden: There is a typo in either case: the "i" after the "n" in the base word scrinium would not be expected to be lost whether the derivative refers to a person or an abstract collection of things
    – Asteroides
    Nov 3, 2022 at 22:27
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    @TylerDurden: aulalaria = aula + -ula + -aria. There is no i before the -aria in that case because there is no i there in the base word. But "scrinium + -aria" should yield "scriniaria", regardless of whether "-aria" means "-eress" or "-ary"; we would only expect "scrinaria" as an outcome if the base were *"scrinum", but it isn't.
    – Asteroides
    Nov 3, 2022 at 22:33
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    @TylerDurden: No, I disagree: there is no rule that words for containers delete "i" in a base. Compare "miniaria" from "minium".
    – Asteroides
    Nov 3, 2022 at 22:36
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    I think baiulans would be a difficulty for the "collection of records" idea -- that verb seems to be used of people or animals rather than objects or places.
    – TKR
    Nov 3, 2022 at 23:03
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    In Fredriksen's book 'Augustine & the Jews', the word 'sciniaria' is rendered 'a guardian of the books' (books.google.ca/…)
    – Moshe Wise
    Nov 4, 2022 at 4:11
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It seems obvious to me that it is supposed to be the feminine form of scriniarius (which can also be parsed as a first/second declension adjective, “pertaining to the scrinium” or something to that effect). Thus it also means “keeper of the scrinium.”

And why use a feminine form? Because gens is feminine. I'm not sure there is a rule that you could not possibly say ea gens est quidam scriniarius Christianorum etc., but there is certainly ample precedent for using the feminine form where applicable, e.g. Cicero: Historia vero [⋯] magistra vitae, nuntia vetustatis (de Oratore 2, 36), [lex perpetua et aeterna], quae quasi dux vitae et magistra officiorum (de Natura Deorum 1, 40; note: no feminine form of dux exists, so it gets used as is), and this very impressive period: Vitae philosophia dux, o virtutis indagatrix expultrixque vitiorum! [⋯] tu inventrix legum, tu magistra morum et disciplinae fuisti. (Tusculanae Disputationes 5, 5)

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  • Where are you getting "shrine"? I don't see any such sense in L&S, perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=scrinium&la=la#lexicon
    – TKR
    Nov 3, 2022 at 20:57
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    I mistakenly wrote that the original source had the spelling scriniaria, in fact even the printed edition of Migne's Patrologia Latina says scrinaria. I don't know why, my best guess is it is a spelling mistake. Nov 3, 2022 at 21:03
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    I'm hesitant to upvote this answer only because of the "shrine" gloss -- I think few English speakers are familiar with the simple "box" sense (at least I wasn't), and the Latin word doesn't appear to have meant "shrine" in the more obvious sense, so it seems misleading.
    – TKR
    Nov 3, 2022 at 21:29
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    @TKR I suppose you are right; I have edited the answer to use the Latin word as-is, as in the question. Nov 3, 2022 at 21:37
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    @MosheWise The correct spelling would have to be scriniaria, as you cannot really derive scrinaria from scrinium. Nov 3, 2022 at 21:38
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It is a metaphorical term meaning recordkeepers in this context.

There are three possibilities for the derivation of this word:

(1) It is an invented word meaning a chest of records. So, in other words, in the same way that an aulularia is a pot of gold, a scrinaria is a chest of records.

(2) It is the plural of scrinarium which is an error for scrinium (a letter case), meaning metaphorically the Jews are the "letter cases" for the Christians

(3) It is an (otherwise unattested) feminine singular of scriniarius (the keeper of letter cases).

In the last two possibilities, the text contains an error of some kind, because it should have been scrinia, not scrinaria, or alternatively it should have been scriniaria. In other words, either the author is writing scrinarium / scrinaria instead of the correct scrinium / scrinia, or the author is mistakenly writing scrinaria for scriniaria. Scriniarius cannot be intended because the plural of scriniarius is scriniarii.

A scrinium is a case to hold letters. For example, here is a quote from Sallust:

Flaccum praetorem scrinium cum litteris, quas a legatis acceperat, eodem adferre iubet.

(He ordered the praetor Flaccus to bring to the same place the letter case together with the letters which he had taken from the envoys.)

As I originally read it, the author is characterizing the Jews as the "letter cases" of the Christians, meaning that they keep the records of the Christians and record their history. It is a metaphor. Of course, one can also imagine that the intent was to write scriniarii, which would be the plural of scriniarius, the keeper of the letter cases. However, this is unlikely because of the neuter plural ending, which clearly indicates the intention to refer to an object, not a person. The first possibility listed, the coined word scrinaria (a letter chest) is a very viable possibility because in that case there is no typo.

In any event, the ultimate meaning is clear: the author meant recordkeepers.


I will quote Louis Gaussen (1790-1863) comments on this passage in his book "Canon of the Holy Scriptures":

But no matter still the oracles of God are confided to you and we may say of you at this day what Augustin wrote a thousand years ago what is the nation of the Jews even in our day but as it were a keeper of the records for Christians carrying everywhere the law and the prophets as a witness of all the Church affirms (Et quid est aliud hodieque gens ipsa Judaeorum nisi quædam scrinaria Christianorum bajulans Legem et Prophetas ad testimonium assertionis ecclesiae.)

(As long as we are talking this word be aware there is also the term scrinaria palatii which were special officials reporting I think to the Roman superintendant of the treasury, but that is a completely different use of the term that does not apply here.)

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    The plural of scrinium is scrinia. Nov 3, 2022 at 20:50
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    The meaning of the Reyher-Juncker quote is that scriniarius is the common word for someone who makes scrinia, not that the two words are confused. Here clearly the first is intended, since the Jews are not being likened to letter-cases but to the keepers of letter-cases, as you say. It's a feminine rather than a neuter plural, as shown by bajulans which agrees with it.
    – TKR
    Nov 3, 2022 at 21:27
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    This answer seems to have some useful information, but "It is the plural of scrinium" just seems to be incorrect. "qui scrinia conficit" is a definition/gloss of what "scriniarius" means; it isn't saying that "scriniaria = scrinia". The derivational suffix -arius agrees well with the translation of the term as "keeper of the records"
    – Asteroides
    Nov 3, 2022 at 21:36
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    As Sebastian said in his answer, "scrinaria" makes sense as a feminine singular form
    – Asteroides
    Nov 3, 2022 at 21:39
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    It's common for masculine occupational nouns in the second declension to have first-declension feminine versions. This can be viewed either as inflection (treating the occupation name like an adjective) or derivation; either way, it is a productive process, so it doesn't take much inventiveness to create these forms as needed. (We can refer to the prior question about sagittarius). The omission of "i" is a separate issue that just seems to be a variant or misspelling
    – Asteroides
    Nov 3, 2022 at 21:54

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