Making Manuscripts

Making Manuscripts

(gentle guitar music) – [Voiceover] In the middle ages, parchment was used to
make the pages of books. Parchment was made from
the skins of animals. The transition from a
fresh skin to a surface suitable for writing was a
slow and laborious process. The parchment maker selected skins of sheep, goats, or calves. Skins were soaked in limewater
for three to ten days, to loosen the animals’ hair. The parchment maker than
scraped away the hair, and any remaining flesh. After this, the skin was
soaked in fresh water, to remove the lime, and then stretched tightly on a frame. A special, rounded knife was used to scrape the hide to the desired thickness. The process of scraping continued over the course of several days. During this time, the
parchment maker continually tightened the tension
on the stretching frame, while the skin dried. The result was parchment, a smooth and durable material, that could last over a thousand years. Before parchment could be written on, it had to be specially prepared. First, the parchment was rubbed with pumice powder to roughen the surface, and then dusted with a sticky powder. These steps made the surface receptive to inks and colors. The whole, finished skin was then cut down to the size of the pages
needed for a particular book. A big manuscript was assembled from sheets almost as large as a single skin. For smaller books, the skin was cut into two or more pieces. The parchment sheets
were folded and nested, to make gatherings, usually
of sixteen or twenty pages. The vibrant illuminations
in a medieval manuscript often overshadow the words on the page. Yet the writing of the
script was as important as the painting of the images. The tools of a scribe, the person who copied
the text onto the page, were simple. Pens, called quills, were made from the feathers of a bird, which were soaked in water, dried, and hardened with heated sand. The scribe carved the
quill to a rough point, cut a slit to draw ink down, then trimmed the point
to the proper width. The shape of the quill point varied with the style of the
lettering being copied. Scribes made ink from
a variety of materials. Gallnuts, growths found on oak trees, were often used to
create a dark, black ink. Black ink was also made by dissolving a common carbon substance. The resulting ink was called lamp black. Before the scribe began writing, he ruled the parchment
using a straightedge. Medieval scribes and their patrons prized a regular and elegant script. If a scribe made an error, he would scratch it out with a pen knife. Because the page was made from parchment, which was very resilient, it could stand many erasures of this type. An illuminator decorated
the pages of a manuscript using paint and precious metals. He began only after a scribe had finished copying the text. The illuminator first sketched his design, then added details such as
the features of a figure, or the interlacing of a decorated initial. Thin sheets of precious metals, like gold leaf, were always applied first. The illuminator put down a base coat, consisting of either a plaster-like
substance called gesso, or a gum, as shown here. Once the gum base dried, the moisture in the
illuminator’s breath was enough to make the
small piece of gold leaf stick to the page. Then, the illuminator
brushed away the excess, and polished the gold leaf. After applying the gold leaf, the illuminator painted his design. Each color was made from a vegetable dye, or a mineral substance, ground
up and dissolved in liquid. The illuminator applied
the paler shades first, then the darker tones. Once the illuminator
applied black outlines, and delicate white highlights
to the figures and vines, the illumination was finished. After the scribes and
illuminators had finished writing and decorating
the parchment pages, the manuscript was bound. Groups of folded sheets of parchment, called gatherings, were sewn together with
strong linen thread onto flexible supports such as
these narrow, leather thongs. Next, the binder attached end bands, which secured the top and
bottom ends of the pages in the spine of the book. The binder then laced the leather thongs along the spine through
channels and tunnels, which had been carved into wood boards. These boards were the
covers of the manuscript. The thongs could be held in place by wood pegs or iron nails. The volume was then covered,
usually with leather. Without pressure from the
covers to keep the leaves flat, parchment expanded and contracted with changes in temperature and humidity. Pressure was applied by the
addition of clasps or straps, which held the book closed. The binding of a manuscript
could be decorated with any one of a variety of materials. A manuscript might be
covered with leather, stamped or tooled with gold, or covered with silks or velvets. The most elaborate
bindings received sculpted decoration made from precious metals. The materials of the binding depended on the wealth of the patron,
the type of manuscript, and its intended use. (gentle guitar music)

30 thoughts on “Making Manuscripts

  1. WOW! Absoluutely fascinating and admirable! How wonderful to see so many forms of art and crafts come together: animal husbandry, calligraphy, visual arts, binding, etc.! And how wonderful that some amazing people are able to recreate the process so accurately! Bravo!

  2. Fabulous!  And for those who are unaware- arguably the greatest single book that has survived from the Middle Ages is the Irish Book Of Kells which is presently on display in Dublin.  The books origins trace back to an Abbey in County Meath- and County Meath was the political and spiritual center of Ireland from Neolithic times until the 12 century.  Here is the Wiki page for the Book of Kells

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