Wednesday, April 18, 2012

How to Make a Medieval Book, Part II

As I said last week, for me the hardest part of writing a book is deciding what to say. But in the Middle Ages, as I learned when researching the technology of book-making for The Abacus and the Cross, a lot more work was involved. Last week, we learned how to make the parchment for your book’s pages. Here’s how to make your ink and bind your book.

At the monastery of Saint Columban in Bobbio, Italy—which once held the greatest Christian library of the tenth century, with 690 books—Jessica Lavelli runs a project for schoolchildren called CoolTour. After they understand how to make parchment (see How to Make a Book: Part I), Lavelli’s pupils get to make their own manuscript. They copy a page from a tenth-century life of the founder of Bobbio, the Irish Saint Colomban. The page begins, Beatus ergo Columbanus, and the initial “B,” taking up a third of the page, is a maze of Celtic knotwork in red, blue, green, and black. For Beatus, the pupils substitute their own names; they fill out the rest of the line any way they like.

Lavelli does not supply authentic medieval inks. “The kids write their names using goose quills and common black ink. Then we give them paintbrushes, and vinegar and egg white to mix the colors, which we buy at an artists’ shop. The colors are not easy to find,” she added, “and it can get very expensive if you want to make your own.”

In the Middle Ages, black ink was made from oak galls—the black bubbles you find on an oak twig where the gall wasp has stung it to lay its eggs. The galls were ground, cooked in wine, and mixed with iron sulfate and gum arabic. Oak galls contain gallic acid, which causes collagen to contract; instead of sitting on the surface, the ink etches the words into the parchment. Crushed iron sulfate (often found together with pyrite) makes the ink black; gum arabic, the sap of the acacia tree, makes it thick. Another recipe called for vinegar and rind of pomegranate. Egg white (preserved by a sprig of cloves) and fish glue were used, in addition to gum arabic, to thicken colors; other common ingredients were ear wax, pine rosin, lye, stale urine, and horse dung.

To make the red ink commonly used for titles, you have to grind and cook “flake-white,” a white crust that forms on lead sheets hung above a pot of simmering wine. To make green, you need copper filings, ground egg yolks, quicklime, tartar sediment, common salt, strong vinegar, and boy’s urine. An expensive blue was made by grinding up lapis lazuli; a cheaper variety could be made from the woad plant, which contains the same chemical as indigo. Yellows were made from the plants weld or saffron, or from unripe buckthorn berries. Purple came from the herb turnsole, brick red from madder root, and pink from brazilwood, while earth colors came from filtered and roasted dirt.

The parchment made, the ink mixed, an expert scribe could write at the rate of forty strokes (five to six words) a minute, which over a six-hour day adds up to two hundred lines per day. Michael Gullick, in Making the Medieval Book, came up with these numbers by counting the lines in a manuscript that a scribe claimed to have written entirely by his own hand in a month. Doubting that anyone could maintain that speed, Gullick asked the calligrapher Donald Jackson for a second opinion. Jackson had worked with quill and parchment for thirty years. He copied lines from the manuscript, taking into account the height of the strokes, the line length, and “the finesse and skill of the scribe.” Jackson estimated the maximum possible speed at twenty-five lines an hour. If the scribe really finished the book in a month, he concluded, he had worked eight hours a day every single day.

And that was just for the text. Illustrations and the fancy initial capitals, like the B for Beatus, were usually done by a different monk, who specialized in drawing. A scholar who examined one luxurious book of psalms found it to be the work of three scribes, a rubricator (who did just the red titles), and nine artists.

Finally the finished pages were sewn into quires (often gathered together with the text of several other books on the same or different topics) and bound between boards of oak or beech. The inside of each board was covered with a fly leaf or pastedown, a piece of fresh parchment or (more often) one recycled from an unwanted manuscript. Sometimes these old sheets were cleaned first, by soaking them in whey or orange juice and scraping off the inks and colors; fortunately, this was not always done—more than one precious leaf has been saved because it was recycled.

The outsides of the boards were covered in leather (alum-tawed pig’s leather was preferred, because it was white) and fitted with metal clasps to keep the book from popping open. Then it would be locked away in a wooden bookchest to protect it—not from thieves, who could open the chest with an axe, so much as from borrowers who might “forget” to return it. For a book was a very valuable thing. A historian who tried to calculate exactly how valuable, found a law book that was bought for eight denaris: the price of ninety-six two-pound loaves of bread.

The bread I buy from a local bakery is about $5.00 a loaf, making the cost of that law book today about $480. My book The Abacus and the Cross, on the other hand, costs $28—in hardback. The paperback, due out in October, will be only $17, just a little more than three loaves of bread.

If you visit Bobbio, check out CoolTour and say hello to Jessica for me:

For an overnight stay, I recommend the farm guesthouse San Martino. It is (of course!) a horse farm within walking distance of the town:

Bobbio has also been recently identified as the town painted in the background of the Mona Lisa. As one newspaper said, “brace for tourists”!

Photos: Detail of a Bobbio manuscript and portrait of a scribe, both from the CoolTour Bobbio website.

Join me again next Wednesday for an excursion into the medieval world at

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