Editorial Feature

How To Make A Manuscript

A look at the four stages of crafting a medieval manuscript

Before the days of keyboards, computers, and printers, if you wanted to write a book or document, it had to be done by hand. It wasn’t just a case of typing it out and pressing the print button! Hand-written manuscripts are one of the most common items to survive from the Middle Ages, which isn’t surprising when you learn about the intensive craftsmanship that went into making one.

We take a look at all the work that went into making a manuscript back in the day.

The parchment

Sobieski Book of Hours, by The Master of the Bedford Hours, 1420 - 1425 (From the collection of Royal Collection Trust, UK)

Hundreds of years ago, you wouldn’t find a manuscript written on an A4 piece of paper. Most manuscripts were written on animal skin called parchment or, if made from calfskin, vellum, such as the example above. This is the Sobieski Book of Hours and this page shows the popular 15th century poem La Vie Sainte Margaret.

To make parchment, the skin was specially treated first: to remove the fur, it was soaked in a lime solution, stretched out and scraped using a curved blade. The skin would then have been suspended in the centre of a wooden frame using string and adjustable pegs so it could begin to dry. As it dried, the strings were tightened to pull the skin taut and the scraping was repeated - this process could last several days until the parchment had reached the desired thickness.

Esther scroll, 18th century (From the collection of Jewish Museum Frankfurt / Museum Judengasse)

The Writing

Once the parchment was created, it would be cut down to the desired size. In preparation for writing, the parchment was often ruled so that lines were written evenly, and this could also help plan where images would go. If you zoom in on the manuscipt below, The Adoration of the Magi from The J. Paul Getty Museum, you can see the ruled lines.

The Adoration of the Magi; Initial E: Sword Bearers, by Master of the Brussels Initials, between 1389 and 1404 (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

It was important to plan what would be on each page to avoid mistakes, the text would be formed separately and blank spaces were left for the decoration. Below you can see an example of how lettering was carefully measured and outlined before being filled in, with this guide by Joris Hoefnagel.

Guide for Constructing the Letters f and g, by Joris Hoefnagel, about 1591 - 1596 (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

Quill pens were used to write on parchment. These were made with the feather of a goose or a swan that had a slit cut in in the middle of the pointed end, which allowed the ink to flow smoothly. The style and thickness of this nib would affect the appearance of the scripts, for instance how round it was or how thick the lettering was. One of the most popular types of script was blackletter, or Gothic script, which can be seen in the example below from The Library of Trinity College Dublin.

Psalter, folio 14r, Late 13th century (From the collection of The Library of Trinity College Dublin)

Illustrations

The next step in making a manuscript would be adding the accompanying pictures. Manuscripts with decoration, such as borders or illustration are known as “illuminated manuscripts.” These were often embellished with gold and silver, named for the glow created by the gold leaf.

New Testament, by Theoktistos, 1133 (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

First the drawings were lightly outlined with the quill or leadpoint, and then painted with a sticky substance that acted as a glue for the gold leaf, such as refined red clay, or sap. When the gold leaf had been applied, it would be buffed to make it as shiny as possible. Then the rest of the illustration would be painted with a type of paint called tempera. These were made by mixing egg white with pigments such as ground minerals, organic dyes extracted from plants or chemically-produced colourants. The color added impact to the design and brought the pages to life, and were especially common in religious manuscripts as a way to captivate the readers.

The Story of Two Lovers, by Unknown, about 1460 - 1470 (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

Binding

Once all the writing and illuminations had been complete, the manuscript was usually bound together to form a book. The parchment was gathered together and folded so that the pages would turn in the proper sequence, and then they were sewn together with cords or leather thongs. These were sandwiched between wooden boards that formed the front and back of the book. The outer boards could then also be decorated by being wrapped in leather or a decorative fabric. Alternatively, the parchment could be presented in a scroll.

Book bag, 1300 - 1499 (From the collection of Röhsska Museum)
A protective amulet scroll in a cylindrical silver case, with a separate talismanic scroll (From the collection of The British Library)

Parchment is extremely durable, and if kept in good condition, can last for over a thousand years. The oldest written manuscripts have been preserved by the perfect dryness of where they were stored in the Middle East, such as ones found in Egyptian tombs.

It was even known to be re-used. Parchments could be scrubbed and scoured to remove existing ink, and then recycled. These are known as palimpsests, like the one below.

Qur'an Palimpsest. Original, photo by DATI/ Ch. Robin & H. Gurtmann/ BBAW Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften (From the collection of The Digital Bab al-Yemen, Freie Universität Berlin)

Now, manuscripts can be preserved with the help of the digitization, which means that the pages can be scanned and stored electronically. This also means that more people can have access to the content, as a lot of old manuscripts have to be stored in specific conditions that aren't publicly accessible.

Digitization of a manuscript in Sanaa, by Sabine Schmidtke (From the collection of The Digital Bab al-Yemen, Freie Universität Berlin)
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