Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Saving Face in Iceland

We celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary in 1992 with a camping trip to the Hornstrandir on the northwestern tip of Iceland. Once the home of the great Viking warrior-king Geirmund Hell-Skin, whom you can read about in the medieval Icelandic Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), the Hornstrandir is now a nature preserve reachable only by boat. Preparing for our expedition, we had a lot of advice from our Icelandic friends—some of which we thought, for years afterward, had been a practical joke.

Waiting for the ferry to take us to the Hornstrandir, we set up house in the campground behind Isafjord’s summer hotel. With Bill and Susie, two fellow campers from Tasmania, tagging along, we went shopping to round out our boiled eggs with other nesti, a convenient Icelandic term for camping supplies.

Bill was a voluble storyteller. He went into great detail about the bear that ripped up their tent in Yellowstone, about how impossible it was to get alcohol for their Trangia stove in the U.S., about not being served in Northern Ireland, about how the Irish slaves brought to Iceland during the Viking Age were responsible for the storytelling genes that led to the medieval Icelandic sagas, treasures of world literature that I had been studying for twelve years. Bill was immune to cold shoulders. He ignored our hints that we wanted to be alone.

The town of Isafjord (population 3,500) edged the foot of a bluff, then straggled along a curving sandspit into the true Isafjord—the Ice Fjord—a harbor on one side, a bulkhead on the other. It smelled of fish and sea and diesel fuel. Founded in 1787, it had three stunning old 18th-century warehouses along its main street, a dozen ugly high-rises, and a jumble of cottages, among which we found a bakery, a market, and (unfortunately) a fish shop.

The best backpacking food, we had been told by a friend in Reykjavik, was dried fish. And the very best dried fish, steinbítur, could only be found in Isafjord. Dutifully, I asked the woman at the counter for steinbítur. They did not have any. I picked up a package of dried haddock instead—neatly bite-sized and vacuum-packed—from a bin by the register.

“Nú já!” the woman said, snatching the package from me and tossing it back into the bin. She spoke rapid-fire Icelandic to the old man beside her, whose eyebrows rose in admiration. I understood the gist of it, not every word: Tourists, apparently, did not often come asking for dried steinbítur. He called to a boy, who soon returned from the adjacent warehouse with a large, clear plastic trashbag stuffed with long, thin, dark strips of desiccated fish, mostly skin. It looked like leather straps. It was a kilo of steinbítur. My husband said we’d take the haddock.

“That’s trash,” said the woman at the counter, waving it away. “Taste this.” She broke off a bit of steinbítur for each of us. It was strong and tough and dry and fishy, like chewing sea-drenched wood chips. I’d had dried haddock before. Slathered with butter, it tasted like fish-flavored crackers. Steinbítur tasted like its name: Stone Biter. Like wind and sea and a long tradition of living off whatever you could catch. The Aussies said, No way, and left.

The old man watched me while I chewed. He was a thin, wizened sailor with sharp blue eyes under a blue watchcap. His face was wind-rough and sun-wrinkled. The woman was twice his size, sturdy and wide-faced, her motherly look cooling the more we dithered over how much of the stuff we’d have to buy to save face. For me to save face, that is. I’d done the asking. My husband, like the Aussies, didn’t want any at all.

We ended up with a quarter-kilo, a long stiff hose that would soon perfume all the rest of our camping gear. It was not enough. The three Icelanders shook their heads. We were idiots. Luckily, they could not know we would toss most of it onto a rock by the sea on the Hornstrandir, leaving it to delight the gulls. There was only so much of its penetrating fishiness I could take, even for tradition’s sake.

The West Tours website ( has all kinds of information on visiting the Hornstrandir Nature Preserve in Iceland. Getting to Isafjord is easy by bus or plane from Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik. I haven’t checked, but I’m sure the fish shop is still there, down by the harbor.

Photos: Me, musing, on the edge of a cliff (photo by Charles Fergus). The steep cliffs of Hornvik, from the West Tours website. Sunset in Hornvik-Hornstrandir by eir@si, found on Flickr.

Join me next Wednesday for another adventure at

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

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

How to Make a Medieval Book

For me, the hardest part of making a book is deciding what to say. In the Middle Ages, there was more to it than that, as I learned when researching the technology of book-making for The Abacus and the Cross. This week and next, I’ll share what I found out.

CoolTour Bobbio: 
Today the greatest Christian library of the early Middle Ages—at the Italian monastery of Bobbio—is empty. Half of its 690 books went to Milan in the 1400s; from there, in the 1600s, some were sent to the Vatican. In 1803, after Napoleon shut down the monastery, the remaining manuscripts were auctioned off. Many were bought by the National Library of Turin, which burned down in 1904. “We don’t have even one to show the kids,” Jessica Lavelli told me. “The library in Milan will not even lend us one.”

An energetic young woman committed to Bobbio’s reputation as the library that “saved civilization” (Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, visited Bobbio, which was founded by an Irish monk), Lavelli makes up with imagination what she lacks in resources. She calls her project CoolTour. From October to March, she invites one school group a week into the monastery and teaches them how to make a manuscript; in April and May, it’s thirty kids a day. “They come from all over northern Italy: Milan, Genova, Brescia, Parma, Cremona. Anywhere that’s less than two hours by bus.”

After a tour of the ancient walled town, with its castle on the hill and its hump-backed Roman bridge over the rushing river Trebbia, the children march through the arched gate behind the basilica and into the high-walled monastery complex. They pass through the cloister, its shady, columned arcades opening onto a sunny square where the monks would have had their herb garden, into a pair of bright classrooms; there they are issued goose quills, ink, and parchment. They learn the history of script from hieroglyphics to computer typesetting and how to make a book starting with the sheep.

In one corner stands a sample of parchment stretched on a drying frame. “I got a sheepskin from a brasserie, a butcher, last spring,” Lavelli told me. “In Italy, it’s common to eat sheep for Easter, so they had many skins. A lamb would be half this size. From one sheep you can get two pages—four sides when it’s folded. From a lamb you only get one.”

How did she learn to make parchment? “From a book. We found a book and tried to do it. It’s a very long process. It takes four days to prepare and one week to dry, so after about ten days we can cut out our page. You dry it not in the sun or in the dark, but in the penumbra. We put it here”—she motioned toward a shady niche in the cloister where high walls block the sun from three directions. “The smell of the skin is not good,” she added, wrinkling her nose. “When it stops smelling, it’s dry.”

According to Pliny’s Natural History, written in the first century A.D., parchment—in Latin, pergamenum—was invented for the king of Pergamos (modern Bergama, Turkey) to break the Egyptian monopoly on papyrus. The sedge used for papyrus was common only on the banks of the Nile. Sheepskins were everywhere.

 The oldest known recipe for turning sheepskin into parchment was written in the Italian city of Lucca at the end of the eighth century. “Place it in limewater,” it says, “and leave it there for three days and extend it on a frame and scrape it on both sides with a razor and leave it to dry, then do any kind of smoothing that you want.”  A twelfth-century manuscript offers more precise—but still somewhat mysterious—instructions on how “to make parchment from goatskins as it is done in Bologna”; this process takes twenty-four days plus drying. Book conservator Leandro Gottscher compared the two methods during a series of experiments one hot summer in Rome in the 1990s. Both made acceptable parchment, though the shorter soaking time made for harder work scraping off the hair.

The limewater is the key to the process. It was made by burning crushed limestone (or marble, chalk, or shells) in a kiln to make quicklime, placing that in a vat or barrel, and adding a little water. The limewater would seethe and bubble and be ready in about ten minutes. Gottscher spread a pulp of limewater onto the skin, folded it, and set it aside for a few days. Other experimenters prefer to dilute the limewater until it is milky and soak the skin. The lime eats into the epidermis, the outer layers of the skin, loosening the hair on one side and the fat on the other.

To remove the hair, rinse off the lime and pull or pluck out whatever hair you can. (Gloves are a good idea—any remaining lime will eat into your skin too.) Next lay the skin over a log or trestle and rub it with a wooden hone, a bone spatula, or a dull knife, a procedure called scudding.

To remove the fat, the hairless skin can be dunked in fresh limewater or rubbed with lime powder, then spread on the trestle, hair-side down, and scudded again. Lean sheep make better parchment than fat ones; excess fat makes the parchment slippery and the ink doesn’t stick. On the other hand, parchment that is scraped too thin can become wrinkly and transparent.

The dehaired and defatted skin is soaked again and stretched onto a wooden frame to dry. To avoid tearing holes, first wrap a corner of skin around a pebble (called a pippin), tie one end of a cord around the pippin and another to a wooden peg in the frame. As the skin dries, tighten the pegs.

While leather-making is a chemical process, parchment-making is a physical process. What’s left after all the soaking and scudding is mostly collagen, long spiraling proteins that form tough, elastic fibers. As the skin dries, these fibers try to shrink. Stopped by the frame, instead the fibers’ structure begins to change.

When it’s dry, the parchment is scraped again, still on the frame, with a crescent-shaped blade called a lunellum (“little moon”), powdered again with lime or chalk to bleach it, and rubbed thoroughly on both sides with a pumice stone to raise a nap. Then it is taken down and cut into sheets of a standard size. The first sheet is easy: a rectangle that, folded, could become four pages of a large book (or eight pages of a small one). Then the cutter has to become creative: A sheepskin is not square. Where the head, legs, and tail were cut off, the skin curves. Scholars often come across manuscript pages with a corner missing—where a page runs into a neck hole. Other blemishes are insect bites (little holes), wounds on the animal (bigger holes), and gashes (where the knife slipped during the flaying); some of these are sewn up, but usually the scribe just wrote around them.

The color of parchment depends partly on the process and partly on the animal it came from. Low-grade parchment could be dark pinkish-brown with a chalky surface, peppered with hair follicles, streaked with scrape marks, or so thin that the ink bled through. Sheepskin, well cured, was “butter-white” or yellowish, but still sometimes greasy or shiny. Goatskin was greyish. Calfskin was the whitest, though the veins could be prominent. The parchment Jessica Lavelli made to show her pupils at Bobbio had a large brown spot. She shrugged. “It was a spotted sheep! I didn’t think it would matter.”

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: Saint Luke at his writing desk, from Bernward's Evangelary (Dom Museum Hildesheim). The town of Bobbio, Italy. Portrait of a scribe from the CoolTour Bobbio website. Detail of a Bobbio manuscript, also from CoolTour Bobbio.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Lord of the Ring of the Nibelungs

My biography of the Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Viking: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myth, has just gone into production at Palgrave-MacMillan. The official publication date is October 30. (Loud cheers and hurrahs!) Here’s an attempt I made to explain Snorri’s importance. Clever readers will also see that it explains the name of this blog, “God of Wednesday”:
Peter Jackson’s long-awaited film of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is in production in New Zealand.

“Das Rheingold,” the first episode in the Metropolitan Opera’s thrilling new production of Richard Wagner’s four-opera cycle, “The Ring of the Nibelungs,” is being sung in New York tonight.

What do these cultural blockbusters have in common, besides dwarves, dragons and awe-inspiring technological wizardry?

The obvious answer is a magic ring.

Tolkien categorically denied any connection. In a letter to his publisher in 1961, he slammed the Swedish edition of The Lord of the Rings, the sequel to The Hobbit. When the translator opined, “The Ring is in a certain way ‘der Nibelungen Ring,’” Tolkien scoffed: “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.”

The translator’s theory was “a farrago of nonsense,” Tolkien wrote. “He is welcome to the rubbish, but I do not see that he, as a translator, has any right to unload it here.”

Yet connecting the two artists is neither rubbish nor nonsense. Both Tolkien and Wagner based their fantastical worlds on the writings of a thirteenth-century Icelander, Snorri Sturluson.

In 1851 a German translation of Snorri’s Edda and parts of the Poetic Edda was given to Wagner. A later German poem, the “Nibelungenlied,” is often thought to be Wagner’s inspiration, particularly since his “Ring,” first performed in 1876, became the ultimate expression of Germanic folk culture. But a point-by-point comparison shows Wagner to be more indebted to Snorri.

In the 1920s, while teaching at Oxford, J.R.R. Tolkien tried to add Snorri to the English canon. He argued that reading Old Icelandic was more important than reading Shakespeare—Icelandic was more influential, more central to our language and our modern world.

Snorri, son of Sturla, was a lover of poetry, a writer of history and saga, and a teller of myths. One of the richest chieftains in Iceland in the early 1200s, he could call up armies of thousands. He himself was not a fighter, but bought favors or won them at law. He had few scruples, and could out-argue anyone. He was fat, troubled by gout, given to soaking long hours in his hot tub while drinking stout ale—not a Viking warrior by any stretch of the imagination. Shortly after finishing his classic books in 1241, he was murdered cowering in his cellar: He had betrayed Iceland’s other chieftains and made a pact with the king of Norway, selling out Iceland’s independence so he himself could be called an earl. And then, rather foolishly, he had betrayed the king.

Yet his work lives on. He may be the most influential writer you’ve never heard of. His Edda may be the most important book you’ve never read.

A 1909 translation calls it “the deep and ancient wellspring of Western culture.”

All the stories we know of the Vikings’ pagan religion—the Norse myths of Valhalla and the Valkyries, the World Tree Yggdrasil, the Rainbow Bridge, Ragnarok or the Twilight of the Gods—come from Snorri. He is our major, and often our only, source.

Without Snorri, we would know next to nothing about the god for whom Wednesday was named (Odin, Wagner’s Wotan). Ditto Tuesday (Tyr), Thursday (Thor), and Friday (Freyja or Frigg).

The history of Scandinavia in the Viking Age (roughly 793 to 1066) we know almost entirely through Snorri. With his vivid portraits of kings and sea-kings, raiders and traders, he created the archetype of the Viking: the tall, blond, independent warrior who laughs in the face of death.

And from Snorri’s books springs modern fantasy. All the novels, films, video games, board games, role-playing games, and on-line multi-player games that seem to borrow their elves, dwarves, dragons, wizards, and warrior women from The Lord of the Rings have, in fact, derived them from Snorri and the Icelandic literature Tolkien so loved.

In 2013 The Hobbit is forecast to arrive on the big screen. If you miss tonight’s “Das Rheingold,” you can guarantee your seats to next season’s complete “Ring of the Nibelungs” performances by subscribing to the Met’s 2012-13 season. When the magic of the rings envelops you, give a thought to an Icelander from long ago. Because of Snorri Sturluson’s wizardry with words, our modern culture is enriched by Northern fantasy.

Learn more about the Met's Ring series here: 

Keep up with Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" here: 

Photos: Statue of Snorri Sturluson by Gustav Vigeland at Reyholt. Snorri by Christian Krogh.

For more about Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myth, stay tuned. I'll post the cover as soon as it's available. Have a place you want me to include on my book tour? Please contact me.