When thinking of medieval writing, we tend to imagine cloistered monks hard at work creating illuminated manuscripts. Actually, there were all kinds of writers at this time, from professional scribes to copywriters working off their debts in prison, and all kinds of texts too. But making a medieval book was no easy undertaking. Just acquiring the basic materials like ink and parchment presented a challenge, yet the book we know today came out of this period. This is how people produced books in an age before the Big publishing houses, between the fifth and 15th centuries:
During medieval times, experimentation with ink recipes was commonplace though often secretive; in fact, many of the finer points of medieval ink-making are still unknown. Early inks involved scraping carbon off heat-treated metal and mixing it with gum arabic to make a paste, but these were prone to fading. After 1200 AD, the basis for black ink became more outlandish: A certain species of wasp lays eggs in the buds of oak trees; when the wasp larvae flies the nest, a woody growth filled with tannic and gallic acids is left behind. These “oak apples” were made into a potion with vinegar or rain water, then treated with metal salts like copper sulphate to make a jet black liquid. Once thickened with gum arabic, it was ready to use on paper or parchment. Manuscripts written in such “gall ink” remain as clear today as when they were first set down.
It might seem like any old feather would do for putting ink to paper, but a scribe had to be selective with the tool they chose. Goose feathers were the pen of choice, plucked from the wings of live birds in the spring time. Right-handed scribes selected primary feathers from the left wing so that the tip bent over their hand and away from their eye-line. These feathers were trimmed, washed and dried out in hot sand to prepare them for use. Fats and dirt were scraped out of the inside of the nib, then the scribe made a thin slit in the tip. Medieval ink had to be thick to hold to the quill, and the tip had to be re-cut over 50 times a day to enable constant writing, making working with them almost as frustrating as Windows 8.
When paper arrived in the West from China, it was regarded with suspicion and contempt. Unlike parchment, it was fragile and given to fading over time. Its use was banned in legal documents, and rich readers had popular books transcribed onto parchment for their conservation. However, as paper manufacturing became cheaper, it grew in prominence.
Paper was made by processing waste fibres such as cloth in water and hammering it with a stamping mill. Layers of the resulting pulp were then skimmed off with a fine sieve. The pulp was shaken up, down, left and right to create a fine cross weave structure, then hung up to dry on ropes coated in beeswax. This draining process left a faint mesh-mark on the sheet from the sieve, and paper makers began to place intricate designs into the sieve's mesh to distinguish their work, creating watermarks. The dried sheets were dipped in gelatin to make them more durable, water resistant and, presumably, delicious.
Parchment is treated animal skin. Its strength and durability made it the material of choice for the medieval writer, and in many countries today, laws are still set down on parchment for posterity. To make the material, calf, goat or sheep skin is cleaned and de-haired, then submerged in a lime solution of potassium carbonate. While it's drying, the skin is stretched by being tied to a frame. The skin should contract as it dries, but due to the restrictions of the frame, the fibres rearrange into a soft and durable structure instead. While the skin is hanging, the parchment maker scrapes away any remaining hair and fat. Once dried, it is ready to fold and cut into whatever form the scribe requires. No folds makes a broadsheet, a single fold makes a folio, two folds makes a quarto, etc.
A grisly after-note: There are existing examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy — human skin being used in books. But despite what Game of Thrones might lead you to suspect, it's not a medieval thing; confirmed examples are mostly from the 18th and 19th century.
Not all manuscripts are decorated, but when decorations are present, the result can be stunning. One of the most striking features of medieval illuminations is gold leaf. Gold is a soft metal, and the leaves are made by simply hammering a small amount of gold repeatedly until it forms a smooth sheet. These were then cut to shape and glued to the manuscript as required. Sometimes a layer of material and glue was built up before applying the gold to create a three-dimensional texture. Alternatively, gold powder could be mixed with gum and then applied to the decorations using a seashell to make a glittery finish.
Before printing took over, it was common for texts to be filled with colour, as it takes relatively little effort to switch ink pots while writing and creates beautiful pages. As well as illuminations, capital letters were often written in red, and important passages could be underlined or annotated in striking colours. Red “dragon's blood” ink was purported to be the result of deadly fights between elephants and dragons, but it seems more likely that it was made from Moroccan tree bark.
Medieval experimentation advanced bookmaking into the form we're all familiar with, and parchments and books remain our greatest resource when it comes to understanding medieval times. More of these survive than any other contemporary artefact, and that's largely due to the diligence and foresight of people back then who invented reliable writing materials. Their efforts set the groundwork for the widespread dissemination of knowledge that we take for granted today. Think about that the next time you’re complaining about not being able to download another e-book because your wifi is on the fritz.
George Dobbs is an MA graduate in creative writing who lives and works in the grim North of England. When he’s not at work on various writing projects, he enjoys cooking, long-distance running and avoiding the weather with his cat.
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