History of the Office: Ancient roots

November 15th, 2018

Most people might think of offices as a typical modern invention. Working in an office is such a normal part of millions people’s every day life that we rarely take a step back and look at it with perspective.

In this blog series we get in the time machine to take a look at some historic iterations of office life.

Ancient roots

The english word office appeared first in 1395, referring to a “place where business is transacted” but the word has much older roots. It stems from the latin word officium, which didn’t necessary refer to a specific place but rather a bureau in the sense of staff, or the more abstract meaning of formal position. Kind of like the expression “highest office” often refers to a high ranking person rather than a particular room or building.

The concept of offices goes hand in hand with the need for administration. The Roman Empire brought a lot of technological and societal inventions to the world and with the growing republic came the need for administration. Or sometimes known under its less favourable name; bureaucracy.

To keep track of an entire empire, you need to measure stuff. How many people are currently living in the cities? How many able men can be drafted to the military in the coming campaign season? How many bushels of barley can we expect the crops to yield next year? How much silver did we trade last year? Since the farmer is out on the fields, working the crops, and the merchants are busy trading in the ports of the Mediterranean, the job to measure and document was a central government effort. And once you have done all the measuring, you need to write it down, and keep it somewhere. How else would you compare to previous years’ crop yield?

This was the job of the scriba – a high ranking notary or clerk in ancient Rome. They worked at the state treasury and government archive to keep records of matters in the interest of the republic; existing laws, new laws, population census et cetera.

In classical antiquity, this early office work was usually carried out in a part of a large temple or palace. These proto-offices is where the scribes did their work, and stored the scrolls.

These scroll rooms are often referred to as ‘ancient libraries’ when they actually resembled offices more than  libraries; places where administrative and managerial functions were carried out, and written records stored.

library-of-alexandria

Library of Alexandria…. or  was it perhaps the Office of Alexandria?

Chancery – the Medieval centre of administration

The middle ages saw the rise of another iteration of the office; the chancery. This was the medieval center of administration. This is where most government letters were written, laws copied and records related to the administration of a kingdom were stored. The title chancellor (which is still in use in many countries) refers to the head of the chancery – i.e. head of office.

medieval-chancery

Here we see a typical medieval white-collar worker crafting an important document for work.

The middle ages also gave rise to non-governmental large-scale organizations such as trading companies, banking families, and religious orders with a need for written records and documentation. Monasteries for example housed early “workstations” comprised of a desk, chair and storage shelves, where the monks painstakingly studied and copied their manuscripts.

Saint Augustine in His Study by Sandro Botticelli. Image: wikimedia

Saint Augustine in His Study by Sandro Botticelli. Image: wikimedia

This painting, Saint Augustine in His Study, gives us a glimpse of what a 15th century office desk looked like. The painting above is on display in The Uffize Gallery in Florence, Italy, which is not a coincidence. The Uffize – meaning ‘offices’ in italian – is a building in downtown Florence originally constructed for the central administration of the Medici Bank.

The Uffize, now a gallery in Florence, was once The Medici Bank HQ – center point of one of the worlds most successful business families.

The Uffize, now a gallery in Florence, was once The Medici Bank HQ – center point of one of the worlds most successful business families.

The Medici Bank was Europe’s largest during the 15th century, and in a way the Uffize is an early version of the modern corporate headquarters; both a workplace and a manifestation of prestige and power.

Despite some similarities between modern corporate culture now and the 15th century, the majority of people in the world still worked as farmers. Working in an office was an activity for the very few, and very privileged. In the centuries to come, as we now know, this will come to change rapidly.

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In the next part of this series, we’ll take a look at how the period before, during and after the industrial revolution shaped where, why and how work was done. Stay tuned for part two!


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