You may have noticed that lately I have been obsessed with book arts—binding, calligraphy, illuminated manuscripts. Well, I’m in heaven now, reading Christopher de Hamel’s Scribes and Illuminators, from the Medieval Craftsmen series co-published by the U of T and the British Museum. It’s a small book, only 72 pages, and with its wealth of colourful images it would be easy to think that it’s a children’s book, but it’s actually a thoroughly researched account of what is known about the production of medieval manuscripts.
An interesting piece of trivia for local Garry oak lovers who are concerned about the invasion of the jumping gall wasp is that the galls produced by the wasp larvae are actually a key ingredient in medieval ink-making. So, what is the bane of local oaks will allow SCA types to accurately re-enact a scribe’s studio (that is, if they can find some acacia gum to thicken the ink and a fig stick to stir the ink while it cures).
De Hamel, who is responsible for the magnificent The Book: A History of the Bible, is quick to dissuade us from making generalizations about medieval publishing:
It is absolutely impossible to approach such questions without making completely clear from the outset that medieval manuscripts were being made at all times during a period of about fifteen hundred years, between the late Roman Empire and the high Renaissance, in every part of Eurpoe and in conditions as varied as it is possible to imagine, from hermits’ cells in the mountains to sophisticated commercial production lines in the big cities. No specific statement about the production of a medieval manuscript can be applied to every medieval manuscript; the field is simply too vast to generalise.
To help us resist the temptation to generalise, de Hamel provides concrete details, such as the cost of the parchment for the Litlyngton Missal (Westminster Abbey), and the quire inventory of 15th century Florentine parchmenter Giovanni di Michele Baldini. He also relates, step-by-step, how stationers and scribes produced the necessary tools and materials, to the point that it may be possible to reproduce a medieval manuscript from raw, natural materials using only this book as a guide. And even if you’re not looking for a primer on how to scrape animal skins, concoct wasp gall ink, or sharpen a goose quill, this book will give you an interesting, visual, behind-the-scenes look at an important period in the history of the book.
It is divided into three chapters, “Paper- and Parchment-Makers,” “Ink-Makers and Scribes,” and “Illuminators, Binders and Booksellers.” I’m half way through the second chapter and enjoying every minute of it. The book goes into tremendous detail, even describing aspects of medieval book making that are mysterious to us but so obvious to medieval scribes that they were never mentioned in their manuals on book production. One example of this is the cutting of quill or reed pens. It was such a commonplace matter (some scribes apparently sharpening their quills 60 times in a day) that in a thousand years no one thought to write down how it was done. We can only guess at the exact method by examining medieval paintings of scribes in the act and trying it ourselves.
One interesting thing I’ve learned is that the ruled lines of manuscripts, which look unsightly to us, actually had aesthetic appeal. Unruled books were thought to look shabby and the best books displayed elaborately ruling. When printing took over, ruling was sometimes added to the printed page “because writing presumably looked naked without it.”