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MEDIEVAL MANUSCRIPT PRODUCTION

Cheryl A. Rychkov
15 April 2003

Until the invention of the printing press, all published documents and books were termed “manuscripts,” which literally means “written by hand.”  For many generations the written word was recorded on wax or clay tablets, chiseled into stone or – with the development of parchment and ink – on scrolls.

Scrolls were by far the more convenient to use, carry and store, but they could not hold a great deal of information. The Roman writer Martial, who lived in the late first century A.D., is the first to mention a parchment codex, or rectangular-shaped book. “He points out that it is more convenient for a traveler and how much space it saves in a library. He even gives the name and address of a publisher where one may purchase text in codex form” (Clement 1). However, the codex didn’t really catch on until the fourth century, coinciding with the rise and spread of Christianity.  One of the major tenets of the new religion was to seek new converts, and so evangelists and missionaries were sent to spread the “good news.”  As the religion grew throughout and beyond the Mediterranean, there was a need for a method of recording large amounts of religious writings in a way that would also be portable.  During this period manuscripts were used almost exclusively by church officials, missionaries and royalty. Not only were they expensive and time-consuming to create, not very many people could read. In fact, in some parts of the world, the concept of images and the written word was entirely alien.

This had changed by the 12th century. Thanks to the organization of monasteries and the rise of universities, more people had the opportunity to learn to read. Crusaders also contributed to an interest in literature when they returned from the Holy Land influenced by eastern ideas of learning and education.

Medieval book production wasn’t only about religion.  Secular manuscripts were plentiful and covered a great many subjects, including: medicine, herbs, history, philosophy and music. Surviving medieval manuscripts also have preserved in their pages much of surviving medieval art. Book production at that time was also very much a profitable business. As demand for manuscripts increased, the scriptoriums at large monasteries became ever larger and even the smallest religious centers sought to obtain profits from the production and sale of manuscripts. Bookmaking became so profitable that the private sector became involved by opening secular scriptoriums, known as “stationers.”  No matter where manuscripts were produced, and no matter how simple or ornate, medieval manuscripts had to be created using basically the same time-consuming process. A synopsis of each step follows.

Holy Tedium: Making Parchment

This was one of the most time-consuming, painstaking aspects of production. Animals had to be selected and many times were bred specifically for light-colored fur (which usually was accompanied by a light skin), as the lighter the parchment the more desirable for books. Imperfections in the skins were many times carefully scraped off – or more creatively – covered with a colorful design.

Preparing animal skins for parchment was not only time-consuming, it was also expensive. The production of a complete Bible required the skins of several hundred animals. The butchering of large numbers of animals typically took place in autumn, and it is likely to have been the primary source of skins used in the production of books.

While one or perhaps a small group of “parchmenters” made the selection of skins to be used, others were more hands-on, and these people stayed really busy, particularly in the larger monasteries and book production centers. Loosening the hair from the skin involved soaking (or in hot climates after washing they were simply laid in the sun till the hair dropped off) in lime and water for at least several days. Next the hairs were scraped off using a knife followed by a pumice stone and then the skin was stretched onto a frame “until it resembles a vertical trampoline” (Clement 3).  Sometimes holes were stretched into the skin, but many times these holes could be sewn shut. Over the following several days to several weeks, workers put the skin through a vigorous scraping using a sharp, curved knife. While this was happening the skin slowly dried and became tighter. When the parchment reached the desired thickness or thinness (which depended on the patron’s taste or regional preference) and was thoroughly clean and dry, the parchment was rolled up and stored. Later, the scribe would prepare the surface for writing by dusting it with chalk.  When the process was completed the parchment would ideally be nearly opaque, though some “publishers” and/or patrons, preferred the thicker parchment, which did not require as much labor. Regional preferences of thickness may also have played a factor.

The Lipscomb Manuscript has pages that appear to be about average in thickness. They are not opaque, but are just a bit thicker than paper commonly used today. If one looks closely, small irregularities in color can be seen. Due to age, handling, and exposure to the elements, some water damage is evident.

Making A Quire

The next step in manuscript production was cutting leaves of parchment to fit the size of the planned book, and then creating a quire, or gathering of leaves. There were generally two ways of doing this. The most common way was to “take four sheets of parchment or paper, fold each once, and then next one inside the other, thus creating a booklet or quire.” (Clement 5).  This technique was used for larger books. Quires for smaller books were easily formed by folding the sheet of parchment until the desired width was obtained. Folded three times, the quire would have eight leaves (and 16 pages). This was the standard quire size during the medieval period, but this varied from region to region.

One very important aspect of quire arrangement dealt with the placement of the sheets. For aesthetic reasons, the inner side of the skin (the flesh side, which was lighter and smoother) faced a sheet of equal quality. The darker, “hair” side was likewise placed alongside a similar sheet.

Pricking and Ruling

Once the quire was assembled, the pages needed to be pricked. This series of tiny holes running the vertical length of the margins, was created by a scribe using a punctorium (a stylus) or a “star-shaped wheel mounted on a handle, which when pushed or pulled along a surface would prick it quickly and consistently” (Baranov 4). Whatever tool was used, it was accompanied by a ruler to ensure the row of holes was kept straight.  Next, the quire was ruled horizontally. This served to further insure that the written text would be straight and even. The most common method involved the use of a stylus and ruler. The stylus “creates a furrow as it is pulled across the surface” (Clement 6). Therefore, the ruling was not only almost invisible, but by pressing down with the stylus several sheets could be ruled at once. The Lipscomb Manuscript, with its even lines of text and no evidence of ruling, is probably a good example of stylus ruling.

When the pricking and ruling were completed, the scribe was just about ready to begin writing. At this point he or she might have chosen to polish the writing surface once more with pumice, or dust it lightly with chalk.

Pen and Ink

The parchment at this point was ready, but the scribe had one more thing to do before writing could commence. In large scriptoriums, apprentice scribes or other helpers would help prepare the ink and writing instruments. However, in most cases, the scribes were responsible for this step in manuscript production. There were a number of inks available, but the two most commonly used were black encaustic (which was acidic in nature and actually etched right into the parchment) and lampblack mixed with either oil or water. The latter type created brown colored ink and was much more commonly used than the black encaustic.  The scribe would prepare the inks using a pestle and mortar to grind the pigments into a creamy paste.  The Lipscomb Manuscript appears to have been written in the lampblack mixture. More elaborate manuscripts – such as those made for royalty – were written in several colors of ink, including blue, red, and gold.

Interestingly, there are few medieval references to the preparation of writing instruments. Apparently such information was so commonly known to the literate populace that instruction guides were considered unnecessary. However, we do know that the outer wing feathers of a goose or swan were preferred as writing instruments. Right-handed scribes chose feathers from the left wing of a bird, since such feathers curve naturally to the right. Scribes were very adept at preparing the tip of a pen, as they had to repeatedly sharpen their pens over the course of writing out a manuscript. Some scribes were super organized and had dozens of quills sharpened and lined up, ready for use.

Copying and Writing Text

Seated at his or her angled desk, the scribe was now ready to begin writing. In most cases, this meant actually copying text from another manuscript, known as an exemplar. Many scribes planned ahead of time by doing a “practice run” of the arrangement of the text (usually on a wax tablet), to make sure the page would be aesthetically pleasing and allow space for decorations that would later be added by the artist. Usually the scribe would hold the pen in their writing hand, and a small, sharp knife in the other. The knife aided in erasing by scraping off the mistake, but it also helped the scribe maintain a steady, even pressure on both sides of the page while writing. While most scribes copied directly from the exemplar, in some of the largest book production centers groups of scribes wrote by dictation. Also, though this was hardly typical, there were even cases of illiterate scribes who had been taught how to copy by imitating the shapes of the letters without really understanding what they meant.

When the scribe had completed a page or quire, he or she would write notations for the artist in the margins regarding the placement and type of design. These notes would be trimmed or scraped away by the artist. Once that was completed (and the ink was dry), the page was sent to a corrector and from there to the rubricator (who would add page headings or other notations where necessary, usually in red or blue ink). At that point the page or quire was ready to be sent to the artist.

The Life of a Scribe

A scribe’s quality of life varied and was dependant on a number of factors. While life in one of the larger, more famous production centers might have seemed more glamorous, unless one were a prominent, highly regarded scribe, life would more than likely be just as difficult as in a small monastery. Certainly in the smaller centers scribes were responsible for more than just copying manuscripts. Indeed some completed the entire process of production on their own. Life for the average scribe in the large monasteries and centers was very much akin to the more modern “sweatshop” experience. The labor was physically demanding. Poor lighting and constant attention to correct formation of letters was punishing to the scribe’s eyesight. Years of sitting bent over parchment, pen in hand, brought on arthritic problems. Scribes worked long hours with few or no breaks and if they were ever found negligent in their duties they would be banned from the monastery, usually for a few days, but sometimes permanently. Additionally, they had to deal with both economic and religious factors. In other words, they had to take their work seriously because of the money that flowed into the monastery as a result of their labors, while at the same time they had to maintain at the very least an honest looking, pious façade. Many scribes were indeed devout Christians doing their sacred duty, but an equal number (particularly in the secular centers) did whatever they had to in order to keep their job. A scribe by the name of Nicolaus of Rhodes left this recollection about his work as a scribe:

“The hand which wrote this book will decay, alas!, and will become dust. It will come to the tomb, which is the bane of all flesh. But we are all part of Christ. Pray to the Lord that forgiveness of sins flows freely. Yea, I shall enter where, after lamentation, have gone our brothers and fathers. Receive my pitiable prayer, o heavenly host…woe is me” (Shailor 136).

Binding

The final step in manuscript production was the binding of the quires into a book, or codex. The quires were gone over once more, checking for errors and general “tidying up,” then gathered together according to either page numbers or guidewords. There were many methods of bookbinding, but generally the pages were sewn into bands or cords, which created a spine. A herringbone or “kettle” stitch was commonly used. The sewing was the most time consuming aspect of bookbinding. Next, wood boards cut to fit the size of the manuscript were attached to the book by threading the bands (that held the pages together) into the wood. The boards were then secured with small wooden pegs or nails. At that point the manuscript was completely usable, though most were covered with leather or fabric. Unlike vellum and parchment (which lasts for hundreds of years), wood and leather deteriorate. Therefore, many medieval manuscripts still in existence do not have their original binding. This is the case with the Lipscomb Manuscript. The current binding of this manuscript is consistent with bindings from about the 18th century, as are the marbleized end papers.

Bibliography:

Baranov, Vladimir. “Materials and Techniques of Manuscript Production.” Medieval Manuscript Manual. http://www.ceu.hu/medstud/manual/MMM/frame3.html.

Brown, Michelle P. Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1994.

Clement, Richard W. “Medieval and Renaissance Book Production: Manuscript Books.” ORB Online Encyclopedia – Manuscript Books, 1997. http://orb.rhodes.edu/encyclop/culture/books/medbook1.html.

De Hamel, Christopher. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Phaidon Press, Inc., 2001.

Diringer, David. The Illuminated Book: Its History and Production. New York: Philosophical Library, 1967.

Shailor, Barbara A. The Medieval Book. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1991.

Works Cited:

Baranov, Vladimir. “Materials and Techniques of Manuscript Production.” Medieval Manuscript Manual. http://www.ceu.hu/medstud/manual/MMM/frame3.html.

Clement, Richard W. “Medieval and Renaissance Book Production: Manuscript Books.” ORB Online Encyclopedia – Manuscript Books, 1997. http://orb.rhodes.edu/encyclop/culture/books/medbook1.html.

Shailor, Barbara A. The Medieval Book. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1991.

 

These pages are the work of the students enrolled in Art 238, "Art and Medieval Mentalities," taught by Professor Christine Hamza during the Spring Semester, 2003.

The format of this site was last updated:  June 7, 2007.