Literature, Medieval

The Write Stuff

The other day, I ordered a book from Amazon. It was available in a Kindle format, so I pressed a couple of buttons, and, Wallah!, as they say around here, it was on my device within seconds.

Now I don’t mind reading books on a Kindle, and I’m well aware of the amount of shelf space I’ve saved over the past eight years by using it as much as I do. In addition, I have the “Kindle Unlimited” subscription, and I’ve found that very handy and cost-effective, when it comes to loading up on light reading which, for me, mostly consists of binge-reading mystery and detective novels in series, when I find an author I like. Is it the same as holding a book in my hand and turning the pages slowly, one by one? No. But it serves the purpose, and gets me by, and through.

I do love the feel of actual books, though. And second-hand bookstores. And the smell of a nice library. Not to mention museums and collections of antiquarian tomes, the few times that I’ve been lucky enough to be in an especially good one. (Such as the Library and Archive at Worcester Cathedral, a hidden gem in the English Midlands. I’m not so down with their exhibition of the fragment of human skin, flayed alive from a Viking who was caught stealing the Sanctus Bell somewhere around 1000, after which his skin was nailed to the door as a warning to others. But the manuscript and early book collection is spectacular. )

Most of us know the stories of medieval monks toiling in their scriptoria, diligently copying other manuscripts, either for their own or other monastery libraries, or perhaps as a private commission for the Duke of Thusandsuch, who had his own collection, and enough money for the purpose, and who wanted to show off his erudition and wealth. The end result, whether or not it was the tactical objective at the time, was the preservation of the wisdom of the ancients, and there’s nothing not to like about that.

But what was involved in getting a manuscript together? And suppose I wanted to duplicate the process today. What would it actually take to do that?

Well, first there must be a surface to write on. No problem! I have a couple of reams of paper I picked up at Sam’s Club, last time they had a BOGO on the stuff.

Ummm, not so fast. Instead, how about we gather up some dead animals. The most highly prized are stillborn goats or sheep (their end product is called parchment), known for the whiteness and smoothness of their skin, but calves do almost as well (if you’re making vellum), and have more surface area per. Skin them, and dump the skins in a vat of lime, to remove the hair or wool. Next, stretch their skins on wooden frames, held taut with laces, and let them dry. Then scrape them, using long knives with two handles (one for each hand). Even further back in time, and you’d be doing the job with flints. Keep scraping until the skin is the thickness you want it, still opaque enough that you’ll be able to write or draw on both sides, but so that it’s thin and fine enough that it can be bound into a book, or stored easily between boards. That process is the subject of the illumination at the top of this post.

OK. Got that. Writing surface? Check.

Now, there must be something to write with. Both a means and a medium. The means is a quill, and the medium is some sort of ink.

First, to misquote Hannah Glasse, author of several 18th-century English cookbooks (short pause for the cognitive disconnect at the words English and cookbooks occurring in the same sentence), “catch your goose.” And pull a suitable feather from it. Or, if you’re lucky, perhaps you’ll find one (a feather, not a goose) lying around, in a field or by a pond. Let it dry for a good while (weeks or months), until it stiffens, and will hold up to the pressure that’s going to be applied as you write page after page. Scrape away any oil, grease, or dirt, and trim the end at an acute angle. Slit the barrel of the feather about half-way up, as that will be the reservoir for ink once you get going, and then make a small cut straight across the very tip, defining the “nib,” and, by its width, indicating the boldness of the letters you’ll be making. You’ll probably need to have 50 or 60 quills ready to go (those poor, naked, geese), as they dull quickly, and if you don’t have a copious supply, you’ll spend half your time sharpening and reshaping the nibs over the course of your writing day, and you won’t get much writing actually done. Have several dozen quills at hand, and you can sharpen them all during your downtime, when you have nothing else to do (sarcasm off).

So. Writing implement? Check.

Now, a writing medium: ink. Crimenutely at this point. Can’t I just go to Staples and buy a bottle of the stuff? No.

You’ll need three ingredients for good quality ink: A few dozen oak galls, some ferrous sulfate, and some gum arabic.

Oak galls are lumpy swellings that occur on the bark of oak trees when a wasp lays its eggs in their buds. The larva develops in a spherical, hard, cocoon, and when it is grown, the wasp bores through the shell and flies out. Oak galls can occur anywhere, so you can go foraging for them in the woods and by the roadside yourself, but the best are thought to come from the Middle East.

Ferrous sulfate (iron vitriol) was brought from Spain. It’s a mineral that’s still used today, medically, to treat anemia.

And gum arabic is a sticky sap from the acacia tree, usually imported from what is now Turkey or Egypt.

So yes, you’ll need ready access to trade routes, fairs, and traveling salesmen, and you’ll need the resources to buy these exotic and expensive products. Otherwise, you might have to resort to one of the cheaper, less effective, not-so-long-lasting ingredients — for example, rather than using gum arabic as your fixative, you could collect several months worth of earwax from cooperative family members and co-workers, and mix that in, instead. Failing that, egg yolks (stinky). You might substitute charcoal or lamp black (soot) for the oak galls. Whatever is accessible, affordable, and will serve the purpose. Just do your best.

Best case though: Boil the oak galls in rainwater, until the mixture is reduced by half, add your gum arabic, and boil again, and then mix in the iron vitriol (which you’ve pre-mixed with some wine). I’d suggest at this point that you also pour yourself a glass of the same wine and drink it (you could try adding a bit of iron vitriol to your beverage if you’re feeling faint or wobbly–medieval Geritol, as it were). Then leave the new ink to mellow for a couple of days, and strain out the bits so they don’t get stuck in your pens, or blotch up your pages.

Done. Writing medium? Check.

All set, right? Not quite.

You’ll need a writing desk. If you want to go full Medieval, this desk will not have a surface that’s parallel to the floor. It will look more like a lectern, so your manuscript will be angled as you write. This will introduce a bit of gravity into the equation, and help with the evacuation of the ink from your quill. Don’t worry; after a time you’ll find the writing position quite comfortable, and if you don’t, well, it doesn’t matter anyway. It’s not about you. It’s about posterity.

And, you’ll need a small knife (which you’ll have to make) in order to scrape away your (probably) frequent mistakes. Be careful when you do, because you don’t want to make a mess, or scrape a hole in your nice parchment or vellum.

Now, I think you’re ready to go. Take several sheets of your writing surface, and either poke little holes in them, or mark guidelines with very watery ink, so you’ll have straight lines to follow. Let the ink dry, if you used it.

Set your original on your desk where you can easily follow along (or find a hapless novice, or even better a woman, to hold it for you), and get busy. Be careful, and don’t make a mess. Set each page on a table to dry, and make sure you keep them in order. That’s important, because when everything is done, you’ll either bind them between two wooden boards into something resembling a modern-day book, but which you’ll call a Codex, or you’ll leave them loose, and just place them between the boards and tie decoratively with a ribbon. In either case, depending on the financial circumstances, or political sway of your patron, you may decorate the wooden boards with cloth, intricately tooled leather, writing, or jewels.

But before that final step, the illuminators must get to work! This step is done after the writing, because it’s even more time-consuming, and it would be a real shame if some dolt of a copyist messed up so badly that the whole page, including your lovely illumination, had to be scraped off and done over.

Illuminators use inks into which even more exotic ingredients have been added or applied: cochineal, azurite, lapis lazuli, volcanic or rare earths, gold, and silver, just for starters. The lasting and vivid colors of medieval illuminations is a testament to the care that was taken and the quality of the inks used. As with this beautiful example from The Book of Hours of Notre Dame, around 1470:

As you can see, the scribe left plenty of space on the page for the illuminators, when both were working amicably together. Sometimes, the illuminator, who had a great deal more freedom than the scribes, would get carried away, and would carry his drawings, and sometimes his doodlings, into the margins. Sometimes, his drawings cast a satirical, a fanciful, or even a vulgar, commentary on the work:

The theme of “Knight versus Snail,” and “Knight versus Rabbit” is fairly common in medieval manuscripts. Theories as to why that’s the case abound, but a common one is that it’s a commentary on the “elites” versus the fast-reproducing and intellectually slow “deplorables.” No prizes for guessing who represents what:

I’m never other than thrilled, charmed, and humbled by the original medieval manuscripts that I’ve been lucky enough to see, and in some cases, even touch. In doing so, it’s impossible not to feel the connection, across hundreds of years, to the ordinary, but very human, beings who, with much toil, and if not in all cases, at least in a great majority of them, with much love, produced great wonders for the ages.

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