On the tenth Thor’s Day of summer in the year 1000, Iceland became Christian by parliamentary decree at the Althing. Lovers of JRR Tolkien’s or Neil Gaiman’s books—or of any fantasy novel, movie, or game—should celebrate that date, because the fantasy genre would hardly exist if the medieval chieftain Snorri Sturluson had not learned to write.
Writing and religion go hand-in-hand for Christians are “people of the book”: Christianity’s most powerful symbol is not the cross, but the Bible. Foreign priests, finding no books in Iceland, introduced the necessary ink-quill-and-parchment technology in about 1030—thus allowing Snorri Sturluson, some 200 years later, to write the books of Norse mythology, history, and lore that inspired Tolkien and much of modern fantasy, including Gaiman’s brilliant American Gods.
A missionary bishop named Rudolf, from Normandy or perhaps England, ran a school in the west of Iceland until 1050. He and his fellows showed their Icelandic students how to make parchment.
First they scraped the hair off a calfskin with a sharp blade. This was a harder task in Iceland, where limestone was unavailable, than in continental Europe; a bath in slaked lime made the hair simply fall off the skin. (See my previous post, “How to Make a Medieval Book: Part I.”) In Iceland, the skins were washed in a hotspring, where the mineral-rich water loosened the hair, and scraped again and again.
Another technique was to soak the skins in urine and leave them to rot until the hair came off. A third method involved tying a newly flayed skin to a heifer, with the hair side against the cow’s skin. In a day or two, the hair would be loose enough to pluck off.
When suitably hairless, the skins were stretched on a frame and set in the shade to dry. After rubbing them smooth with pumice (plenty of that in volcanic Iceland), the parchment was made soft and pliable by twisting it and pulling it back and forth through a ring made from a cow’s horn.
Quill pens were cut from swan, goose, or raven feathers (also easily come by in Iceland); left-wing feathers were best for right-handed writers because they bent away from the eye.
Ink was made from the bearberry plant, mixed with a clay commonly used to dye wool black and a few shavings of green willow twigs. The mixture was softened in water, then simmered until it became sticky. “Let a drop fall onto your fingernail,” says one recipe. “If it remains there like a little ball, then the ink is ready.” A little bit of gum from the first milk of a young ewe or heifer was added to the ink to make it shiny. (To compare this to ink-making elsewhere in Europe, see my “How to Make a Medieval Book: Part II.”)
The result was ink that was black, glossy, and impermeable to water, which was a very good thing for people who often traveled by ship. Books are rarely mentioned in medieval Icelandic texts, but in one famous shipwreck, a priest is desolate when his book chest is swept overboard. Learning a few nights later that it had washed ashore, he hurried to the spot to dry out his books; it took him six weeks. Mold is the one thing a parchment book cannot survive.
Luckily for us, three parchment copies of Snorri Sturluson’s Edda survived until the 1600s, when they were published. The Edda has been in print ever since, available to be read by Tolkien, Gaiman, and countless other fantasy writers whose work is imbued with the spirit of Norse mythology.
This essay was adapted from my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, published by Palgrave Macmillan.
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