How to make a medieval manuscript

How to make a medieval manuscript

Before the introduction of printing to Europe, all books were written by hand as manuscripts. The process of making a manuscript was carefully planned and thought out in advance.

The beauty of this book displays my genius.
Eadwine, mid-12th century

The word ‘manuscript’ derives from the Latin for written (scriptus) by hand (manu). The most luxurious of these were illuminated, literally lit up by decorations and pictures in brightly coloured pigments and burnished gold leaf and gold paint (if it was used at that time).

Many scribes and artists were monks, particularly in the medieval period from 700 to 1200. From documentary evidence it is clear that many of these artists worked in a variety of media, but it is their painting in books that survive in great numbers, giving us a glimpse into the great artistry of the Middle Ages.

Quills and writing tools

Texts were written with quills made from the feathers of geese, swans or other birds. The Latin for feather is penna, giving the modern writing tool the name of ‘pen’. The first five flight feathers on the outer edges of the wing made the best quills because of the longer length of the barrel from which the nib is cut. Because of the way the feathers curve, those from the left wing of the bird are more suitable for right-handers, and those from the right wing for left-handers. The end of the quill was cut with a penknife to make a nib-shape. Knives were also used to scrape out mistakes made on the page and re-cut the nibs.

Did you know that left-handed pens were in use during the Middle Ages? Patricia Lovett demonstrates how to make quill pens from bird feathers.

Oak Gall Ink

Soot, iron salts, or tannic acid from oak galls (swellings on oak trees formed around gall wasp eggs) were mixed with gum and water to make ink.  Oak galls were crushed with a weight such as a hammer. Then the gall was mixed with copperas (iron sulphate), and covered with water and left in the sun for several days. During this time, tannic acid leached out, creating a purplish or brownish liquid when mixed with iron sulphate. Gum Arabic was added to this, thickening the ink and ensuring that it adhered to the writing surface.

Why were wasps so important for medieval scribes? Patricia Lovett reveals the complex process behind making ink for writing in manuscripts.

Parchment and vellum

Most medieval manuscripts were written on specially prepared animal skin rather than paper. Parchment is any type of animal skin, including sheep skin, or calf skin (known as vellum), the highest quality skin.

The skins were first soaked in a lime solution to remove the hair and any flesh, and then stretched on a frame so that it could be bleached and scraped to a relatively even thickness. After being dried, the skins were cut into sheets to create pages. It is still possible to see hair follicles in the pages of some manuscripts.

What material did scribes use instead of paper for the pages in their books? Patricia Lovett discusses how animal skins were selected and prepared for use in medieval manuscripts.

Preparing the page

After the skin was selected and cut to size, the page was prepared and laid out for the writing lines. A sharp pinprick mark was made using the tip of a knife or the points of dividers to show where lines should be ruled on the page. This was done in either dry point (without an ink line) or in graphite, lead or ink. The writing was usually completed first on unfolded pages because it is easier to write on the pages when they are flat, then gathered together in sections, leaving spaces for the decoration.

How did scribes prepare their pages for writing? Patricia Lovett examines the tools for ruling and line marking in medieval books.

Pigments

The pigments to make paints came from minerals, such as minium (orangey-red, from which the term ‘miniature’ derives), lapis lazuli (ultramarine – blue), and cinnabar (vermilion – red). Pigments could also be made from plants such as woad (producing dark blue) and madder, (pink) or from animals such as sea molluscs (purple) and squid (dark brown/black).

How did illuminators make the brilliant colours in their manuscripts? Patricia Lovett uncovers the variety of pigments that were in use in the Middle Ages.

Paint

As the pages of medieval books were closed for most of the time, the pigments used to decorate medieval books kept their vibrancy and colour. Pigments were mixed with glair (egg white beaten to remove the stringiness, and the liquid under the froth then used) or yolk, both making egg tempera; egg provides the adhesion. Gum Arabic was also used to ensure the paint attached to the surface of the page.

What role did eggs play in illuminating manuscripts? Patricia Lovett explains how medieval artists painted the beautiful illustrations in their books.

Gilding

Most luxury manuscripts were illuminated by the addition of gold, either as paint or gold leaf. The paint is known as shell gold, because it was typically kept in a mussel shell. Gold leaf was applied over gesso, which raises the gold from the surface and so it really catches the light, glair (beaten egg white), or gum. It was then burnished to a shine with a polished stone such as agate or an animal tooth and the metal still glows in manuscripts centuries after it was first applied.

How did medieval artists make their manuscripts shine? Patricia Lovett explores the work behind painting and embellishing manuscripts and reproduces a lavishly illuminated page.

Binding

Folded sheets of parchment or vellum were grouped into booklets or ‘gatherings’. These were placed in order and sewn onto leather cords running horizontally across the spine of the book. These cords were then attached to the wooden boards of the book cover.

The leather- or textile-covered boards of the finished book were sometimes further decorated with ivory insets or embroidery. Precious stones and metals ornamented the bindings of the grandest of books, but few of these ‘treasure’ bindings survive.

10th-century Gospel-book, produced in Metz

Latin 9393, upper cover

The lower cover of an 11th-century Gospel-book depicting the Crucifixion (BnF, Latin 9391)

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  • Kathleen Doyle
  • Dr Kathleen Doyle is the Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library.  She received her PhD in Medieval Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, where her thesis focussed on 12th-century Cistercian manuscripts and the use of images in monastic art. Her latest publications are with Charlotte Denoël, Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art in England and France 700–1200 (2018), also available in French, and with Scot McKendrick, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (2016), which has been translated into Dutch, French, German and Italian.  

    Dr Doyle was the co-curator, with Dr Scot McKendrick, of the AHRC-funded exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, and the Lead Investigator for the Royal Manuscripts follow-on project, editing with Dr McKendrick the volume 1000 Years of Royal Books and Manuscripts (2013).

  • Patricia Lovett
  • Patricia Lovett MBE FRSA is a British scribe and illuminator from Kent. She is the author of over a dozen books including the Art and History of Calligraphy published by the British Library, teaches calligraphy, illumination and manuscript skills in the UK and worldwide, and has been featured in a number of TV programmes about manuscript skills. Since 2017 she has been the Chair of the Heritage Crafts Association, having been Vice-chair since it was set up, and in 2013 was awarded an MBE for services to calligraphy and the protection of heritage crafts.