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The Write Stuff

A wonderful example of the art of illumination and book production. Here you can see King Edgar flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. Peter, offering the Charter of the new Minster to Christ in Winchester. From the Cotton Vespasian in the British Museum
*Illuminated manuscript

For knowledge about the techniques of the early medieval scribes we are dependent upon three main types of evidence. The first type of evidence is the surviving manuscripts themselves. The second type of evidence are the remains that are found on archaeological sites such as Whitby and Jarrow, where writing equipment has been found. The third is the written evidence found in historical and literary sources; the most revealing in this category are the riddles. These describe every-day objects.

The two most useful in this context are:

An enemy ended my life, deprived me of my physical strength; then he dipped me in water and drew me out again, and put me in the sun where I soon shed all my hair. After that, the knife's sharp edge bit into me and all my blemishes were scraped away; fingers folded me and the bird's feather often moved over my brown surface, sprinkling meaningful marks; it swallowed more wood-dye (part of the stream) and again travelled over me, leaving black tracks. Then a man bound me, he stretched skin over me and adorned me with gold; thus am I enriched by the wondrous work of smiths, wound about with shining metal...


Of honey laden bees I was first born, but in the forest grew my outer coat; My tough back comes from shoes (the leather thongs), An iron point in artful windings cuts a fair design, and leaves long twisted furrows like a plough.

The first of these riddles describes the production of a fine book or gospel. The second describes the production and use of a wax tablet or wax book.

Such riddles as these were popular with the Saxons. Surviving collections of these riddles include examples by contemporaries such as Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmsbury and Bishop of Sherborne c.640 - 709 A.D., Tatwine, Archbishop of Canterbury (died 734 A.D.) and 'Eusebius', possibly Hwaetherht, Abbot of Wearmouth and friend of Bede c.680 - 747 A.D..

The books and manuscripts were written on vellum, a preparation of calf, goat and sheep skins. As the majority of codex, or scripts, used a great number of hides, anywhere up to 800 for the greater books, it therefore meant that the production of these scripts was very expensive and the books were mainly produced for kings and the Church.

There were a great variety of colours used in the production of the early manuscripts. All of these came from natural sources such as madder, kermes, red and white lead, verdigris, yellow ochre, yellow arsenic sulphide (orpiment), oak gall, indigo and woad and lapis lazuli. The last of these was only available from Badakshan in the Himalayan foothills. The transparent medium used for these was mainly the simple white of an egg although fish glue was sometimes used for some of the colours. Gold and silver were sometimes used in the production of manuscripts (after the early insular script).

A page from an early set of Gospels in Durham Cathedral Library
*Durham Gospels

To begin with the scribe would prepare the inks to be used in the script. He would take great care over the production to ensure that the result required, an even paste, was similar in consistency to that of cream. To produce this he would use a heavy pestle and mortar to grind the pigments into an ultra fine paste. The paste would be stored in an animal bladder sealed with twine, if later examples from the1200's - 1400's are anything to go by.

Once the inks had been prepared the scribe would turn his attention to the vellum first. The sheets would be cut to approximate size, then they would be gathered into groups of three or four, folded in half and trimmed to the correct size. After this the top sheet would be 'pricked out' using either a sharp knife or brad-awl. The holes would be pierced right through all the sheets. The lines would be ruled up, with a sharp instrument so that there was a slight impression left on the surface of the sheet. Each sheet would be ruled individually.

The pages were laid out with three main margins and up to thirty six lines upon which the lettering was written. There were two right hand margins, the first being the more important, was of reasonable width, the second, the lesser of the two, was used in the production of the capitals which headed the separate paragraphs. The last of the three margins - the left hand margin - was used to keep a clear line for justifying the text. This margin was smaller than the right hand one but far greater than the one used in the production of capitals.

Once the scribe had ruled up the vellum he would work on the layout of the piece of work. This would be done on wax tablets. Then he would try to concentrate and transfer the work onto the prepared vellum.

The words would be worked onto the vellum with a quill or reed pen. This would have been prepared by the scribe to the desired width for the particular piece of work to be undertaken. The nib shape would vary depending on the work for which was to be used. It would vary from a thin straight nib to a wide flat or slant nib. The letter styles used varied through the ages as they developed from the Roman Uncial. Both the Carolingian (or Caroline) and the Insular Majuscules and Minuscule, developed from the same base script. In the early scripts both these forms were similar in appearance but by the eighth and ninth century, the letter styles had evolved into recognisably different in shape and form.

This change was probably due to the isolation of the Insular Isles to the Carolingian areas in Europe. The Carolingian style was developed under the rule of Charlemagne, when, in 789 there was a decree which called for the revision of Church books. This meant that there were a great number of books which had to be copied by the monks in France, especially at Tours, where the script was developed for speed. The Carolingian hand/script is probably the forerunner of the modern written hand. The English Uncial developed from a close relative, the Irish Uncial, by the ninth century both of these had developed into a pointed letter hand. The Irish Uncial reached its height of perfection in the Book of Kells.

The front cover of a bible from Chiavenna, in the College Church of San Lorenzo. Most works of this period, especially the great ecclesiastical works were decorated like this, making the covers such a prize for the Vikings

Once the written work was complete, the pages would be illuminated with fine colours and metals. These would be placed down in more than one layer to build up the colours. Once the pages were finished they were folded into the folio's and placed up to eight pages in depth. These were then stitched together (in order) then bound with boards and a spine. This was covered with leather and decorated with raised designs which were then decorated with metal foils. The books could also have been covered with ivory which was carved with fine scenes.

Unfortunately few of the illuminated manuscripts have survived with their original coverings intact. The earliest of these is the one which was buried with St Cuthbert after he he was exhumed and venerated as a Saint. The binding of a book is a specialist art, i.e. The bindings, if they were to be of the top most quality as they were for the books which bore the fine illumination, were bound by specialists in the field. This can be seen with the Lindisfarne Gospels which, we know was first bound by Ethwald, was proficient at his task.

I suppose we have these particular craftsmen to thank as they were responsible for the preservation of the scripts.

We do have a small insight as to who copied some of these works. In the Pershore censer, there is an inscription which reads: Godric me wvorht[e], translated as 'Godric made me'. Other inscriptions such as this exist in other wporks, but the most enlightening is from the Lindisfarne Gospels.

'Eadfrith, bishop of the church at Lindisfarne originally wrote this book for God and St. Cuthbert - jointly - for all the saints whose relics are in the island. And Ethilwald, bishop of the Lindisfarne islanders impressed it on the outside and covered it - as he well knew how to do. And Billfrith, the anchorite, forged the ornaments which are on the outside and adorned it with gold and with gems and also with gilded-over silver - pure metal. And Aldred, unworthy and most miserable priest, glossed it in English between the lines...Eadfrith, Ethilwald, Aldred made or, as the case may be, embellished this Gospel Book for God and Cuthbert.'

Probably one of the earliest forms of advertising in 'print'.

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