Manuscripts Awesomeness

warning: The nerd factor of this post is about 8/10.  If you don't really care about making books...skip this post.  

In this, the second to last semester of Grad School, I am taking a Medieval Manuscripts Class.  I know, it's totally awesome.  We basically study the construction, design, history, and context of manuscripts from the 6th century through the late middle ages.  It's like I've died and gone to heaven and someone is giving me school credit for it.

When Max and I were in New York I insisted that we go to the New York Public Library- twice actually.  I didn't know if they had any exhibits going on, but I thought it was worth a shot.  When we got pas security I looked up to find a sign that read

"Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.  Scriptorium This Way"

What?  A scriptorium?  (The scriptorium is the room where monk scribes copied manuscripts and did the illumination and decoration)  Turns out we had stumbled into an exhibit on the "founding religious manuscripts of the three Abrahamic faiths" complete with scriptorium.  I spent most of my time in the scriptorium watching videos about making ink and parchment and doing medieval calligraphy.  This little backlit table below was set up so people could trace calligraphy from the various languages involved in the exhibit.

These other pictures help illustrate the book making process.  The first pictures are bottles of pigment that were traditionally mixed with egg white (called tempera) or gum arabic to produce flowing inks and paints.  It looks awesome, but somehow I doubt that 6th century monks had hot pink ink.  They did have a surprising amount of colors at their disposal, but I don't think hot pink was one of them.  The color pigments come from things that occur in nature - trees, rocks, dirt, plants, rust, special kinds of fungus, etc.  There is a long soaking and grinding and sifting process that takes place before you get to this stage.   
This is a piece of parchment as it stretches on a frame.  But let's back up.  In preparation for my final on Wednesday, I'll just give you some of the juicy bookmaking details.  Parchment was used for "books" after things like clay, wax, or stone tablets.  You make parchment, which comes from the skin of an animal, by soaking the skin in a solution of lye, sometimes alum, sometimes oakgall (little knots on trees left over from insects) - there are a variety of things.  This helps the hair fall off.  Then you scrape the skin with a sharp knife, soak it again, scrape it again and then stretch it out to dry on a frame.  While on the frame you scrape it again, making sure to remove all of the hair.  Lastly, there is a kind of polishing done on the parchment by rubbing pumice or the flat side of knife over the skin.  It was also common to treat the parchment with something that would help ink stay put on the skin later in the bookmaking process.  By the end the very thin skin is folded, cut, marked and text is copied onto it.  
They also had a display about paper.  Paper is made by separating the fibers of an existing thing, a plant or a tree, or natural fibers like the ones below, by soaking it in water, beating the pulp to break fibers apart, running the sludge through a screen and then leaving the newly formed fibers to dry and bind into a new sheet of paper.  There was a little egg shaped burnisher made out of a rock that we could try and burnish the paper with to give it a better look.  Very hard stuff.  

Wow.  I've really nerded up the place.  I'll leave the other mysteries of bookbinding for another day.  But if you want to learn more about the exhibit and watch the awesome videos, you can follow the library's link.  NewYork Public Library: Three Faiths


  1. Awesome. There's no better word for it. I want to take your manuscript class.

  2. "Nerd Factor 8/10" You crack me up.
    By the way, it's not "nerd factor" at all. It is just that you are so many levels above the rest of us...in so many ways.