Tuesday, 20 June 2017

A Medieval project (4)

In the previous part of this project, I worked on the page layout of my fake parchment. For the next part, the instructor wanted students to experiment with various aspects of writing, in preparation for writing the manuscript. In particular, three aspects of writing will be investigated, namely ductus, angle and weight.

1. With ductus is meant the number and direction of pen strokes, as well as the order in which they are made.There are four basic strokes that make up letters: vertical, horizontal, diagonal and curved. With modern ballpoint pens, we tend to forget about ductus, because with these pens, it often does not matter that much - they give a line of uniform appearance, irrespective of how the pen is pulled or pushed on the writing surface.

Individuals will nevertheless develop their own way of doing it. I seem to remember being taught this in primary school as well, though I can't be too sure, as my older brother taught me to read and write before I went to school, and so I never paid much attention in those classes! Nowadays, at least here in South Africa, many schools seem not to put much emphasis anymore on how a pen should be held and how the pen strokes should be made.

As noted above, with ballpoint pens it does not matter as much as with older writing implements such as fountain pens or dip pens, as we shall shortly see.

In the illustration below I indicate the ductus of some letters made with two different implements. The top line shows the basic strokes. In the second line, I indicate the direction and order in which strokes were made. This applies to my own handwriting, and will not be universal with all people.

In the third line I continued the analysis, this time comparing a ballpoint pen with a dip pen. With the ballpoint letters, one hardly needs to indicate ductus, because with a ballpoint the letters can really be formed with a single, continuous stroke. With a dip pen, on the other hand, you rapidly run into trouble if you try to use it in the same way as a ballpoint, because the dip pen nib cannot readily be pushed forward; all strokes must be made with a pulling motion. With the letters in ballpoint, I could use a single motion and just change direction, without having to lift the pen, whereas with the dip pen I had to make separate pen strokes, as indicated.




2. The writing angle refers to the angle at which a pen's nib is held with respect to the horizontal or vertical. As with ductus, in the case of a ballpoint pen it makes no difference, and indeed, because of the symmetrical shape of the ballpoint nib the term doesn't even make much sense when talking about writing done in ballpoint.

With dip pens of the sort used during the Middle Ages, it makes quite a difference, as can be seen in the diagram below. Changing the angle at which the nib is held creates quite different letter shapes. This is particularly noticeable when using  broad nib. With thinner nibs the difference is not so apparent.



3. With weight is meant the difference in width between the thinnest and thickest strokes in a script. Scripts where there is no difference or the difference is small is referred to as light scripts, whereas script where the difference is big are considered to be heavy scripts. As can be seen in the diagram, the type of pen used makes a big difference. Ballpoint pens give an even and very light script. In cursive writing with a ballpoint, a slight heaviness can enter if, for example, less pressure is used on upstrokes than downstrokes (as is taught in some schools), so that downstrokes will be slightly broader. However, it hardly noticeable.

With dip pens with flat nibs, the writing is heavier the broader the nib, as can be clearly seen below, despite the fact that I have no experience in writing with these pens and am therefore not exactly skilled at it.



Only one thing remains before I can start to write my manuscript, and that is to choose a text to copy. I decided on Tennyson's poem The Lady of Shalott, which has a medieval theme even though it doesn't date from medieval times. I am going to attempt to copy out and illuminate the entire poem. This will be a project for another post.

Previous posts in this series:

Part 1: Making the parchment

Part 2: Creating quires

Part 3: Preparing the parchment for writing

Saturday, 10 June 2017

How to make medieval-style ink

A commonly used ink in the Middle Ages was iron gall ink; there is an article about it on Wikipedia. The problem is that it uses some ingredients that are not readily available everywhere. For example, here where I live in South Africa, I have no idea where to get hold of oak galls, or iron sulfate for that matter.

So here is recipe that works reasonably well, using some commonly available materials. You will need vinegar, steel wool and tea, plus some suitable containers in which to mix them.

First, take some steel wool, put it into a container and cover it in vinegar. Leave it to react for a week:


Some of the steel wool dissolves in the vinegar, forming iron acetate (I think; my chemistry is as rusty as the gunk that forms in the glass). You will notice that quite a lot of bubbles will form on the surface of the steel wool as the reaction runs, and a rusty mess begins to float on top and sticks to the sides of the glass, which is why it is best to use an old one that you do not want to drink from again. However, lower down the solution is quite clear, and it is this bit that we'll use.

I now brewed up a very strong tea. I used two tea bags for half a mug of water and let it steep for quite a while to get it as strong as possible.One can use such a strong tea as an ink substitute as well, but it tends to be rather on the light side. Based on what I read the early pioneers in South Africa used the leaves of the protea tree instead of tea, and I have a feeling eucalyptus leaves will work as well, or any other leaf that contains a lot of tannins, but I have not tested this personally. I mix the tea with some of the clear steel wool/vinegar solution in a more or less 50:50 mixture:


One has to experiment with different mixtures, because the colour of the ink depends on that, but also on how strong the tea was, and the precise consistency of the steel wool/vinegar mixture, so no two batches ever look precisely alike.

Mostly, one gets a brownish ink, though I have on occasion managed to produce a fairly dark, bluish-black ink as well. One can use various instruments with which to write:


The ink is initially quite light in colour, but it darkens a bit as it dries, rendering the writing quite legible. Note though that as with real medieval ink, it is not archival: the acidity tends to eat into the writing surface, and will in time damage or entirely destroy it.


A Medieval Project (3)

In the previous part of the project, I gathered together my fake parchment into quires; now they have to be prepared to receive text and decoration. The medieval scribes took page layout (manuscript experts prefer the French term mise-en-page) quite seriously and had various mathematical formulas with which they worked out how big the text area should be, where on the page it should go, what shape it should take and so on.

Looking at this example, we can see some common features of medieval page layout:

The text area is not placed symmetrically in the middle of the page, but is shifted upwards and to one side (which side will depend, to some extent, on whether we are looking at a left or right page). One still sees this even in many modern books. A reader usually golds a book at the bottom, so the upward shift facilitates reading. Viewed inside an actual book, this off-centre design can also be more aesthetically pleasing than a perfectly symmetrical one would have been.

Here is another example:


Here we can see that writing was often done in columns, in this case with remarkably few word per column. Apart from that, the page also displays the typical off-centre design. The border may or may not have been utilized for decorations.

For my own page design, I decided to try out a medieval scheme known as the "secret canon." It is in fact not so secret, and there is a Wikipedia page with information about it.

It works as follows. Two facing pages of the manuscript is placed in front of the scribe to form a rectangle:


The diagonals of the rectangle (lines AB and CD) are drawn. Then the diagonals of the two individual pages, (AE and DE) are drawn in. The point F is where lines DE and AB cross, and from this point a vertical line is drawn to point G at the top of the page. From G, a line is drawn to point H, which is the point where the diagonals AE and CD cross. I is the point where the lines GH and DE cross, and this point is used as the starting point with which to construct the text area.

From I, a horizontal line is drawn to point J, where the line reaches diagonal AB. From J, a vertical line is drawn down to point K, where the vertical line meets diagonal DE. From K a horizontal line is drawn to L, a point directly below I. L and I are then connected to form a rectangle inside the page.

The text area on the facing page is a mirror image of the one constructed above.

I did the above construction on an A4 sheet of paper folded in half to form two size A5 pages. My fake manuscript will have the same dimensions. The design as constructed above was slightly awkward to work with because its lines do not fall on easily measured points on a ruler, so I slightly changed it for my own design, but it still looks very much the same.

I then added some ruled lines to write on, as well as a square space for a decorated initial of the sort often seen in medieval manuscripts. Finally, I wrote out a piece of my chosen text to see how it would fit onto the page. I chose Tennyson's poem The Lady of Shalott, the verses of which all consist of nine lines. I found that the first verse did not quite fit into the area; for my final manuscript I'll have to either make the text area a bit larger, or write smaller. For the moment, the design looks like this:


Because of the small size of my pages I decided to only work in a single column per page; I think doing it differently would be awkward and not look very good. My handwriting will also have to look a bit better! I have no knowledge of calligraphy, so I'll just use a normal handwriting, but try to make it as neat as possible. Having experimented a bit, it appears that using rather smaller letters than the ones I used above might look better, which will also solve the problem of the text not fitting into the area.

In the above example, my letters are placed on the lines in the manner we consider normal today. But during medieval times, depending on the time and place, scribes sometimes used their guide lines differently: the line could be used to indicate where the middle of the letter should be, or letters could be "hung from" the line.

On to my actual fake parchment. This brought up another aspect of medieval manuscripts, namely pricking and ruling. One can see evidence of this in many manuscripts from medieval times, such as this one:


Medieval scribes used a sharp instrument like an awl or compass point to prick little holes into pages, which served to show proportions, and where lines for writing would be ruled. They then used various methods to draw these lines, two of which can be seen in this example:


The green arrows point to indented lines scored into the parchment with a sharp instrument. The orange arrows show lines drawn with chalk. For my own manuscript I decided to just use pencil.

It is not clear to me why medieval scribes needed to prick holes in their parchment: if they had materials with which to make lines, like chalk or ink, then surely they could have used these materials to make dots instead of lines? I decided not to prick my manuscript full of holes and just used the point of a pencil to make appropriate marks, which indicate where pin pricks would have gone in a real manuscript.

And thus, two facing pages from my manuscript in progress:



Other parts of this series of posts:

Part 1: Making fake parchment

Part 2: Creating quires









Sunday, 4 June 2017

A Medieval Project (2)

The second installment of this project, which began here: A Medieval project (1). This week, I create quires out of the fake medieval parchment I made last week. Quires are simply bundles of folded parchment that have been stacked for binding; it is still done pretty much the same way today as it was in the Middle Ages. Here is a facsimile edition of the Codex Gigas, showing numerous quires bound together into a volume:

 Codex Gigas 12th century facsimile

There were several ways of going about it, the simplest of which was to take sheets twice as large as the page size you want, and then folding them over:


Several such folded sheets could then be stacked and bound together:


A somewhat more tricky procedure was to take a single large sheet and then fold it in half several times, to create a stack of sheets:


This procedure rapidly created a stack of sheets out of one large sheet, but it became necessary to carefully keep track of the order of the sheets and how they would be filled with writing. To do this one can simply number the pages in the order in which they are stacked here, making sure to indicate which part of the page would be on the top, so that pages don't end up being written upside down with respect to others from the same stack:


When I unfold the paper, one can see that the numbers that were on consecutive pages in the folded stack end up in rather counter-intuitive positions on the original sheet:


Here, the numbers 1, 4, 5 and 8 ended up on opposite sides of the sheet, and the original bottoms of the pages also end up on two opposite sides of the sheet. The numbers 2, 3, 6 and 7 end up on the other side, in similar manner:


I have hatched this side in pencil to represent the darker, hair side of parchment. This is of some importance, because most medieval manuscripts follow what is known as Gregory's Rule or Gregory's Law, named after Caspar René Gregory (1846 - 1917), the American theologian who first noticed it: when you open a medieval codex anywhere, the two pages facing you will either both be lighter, flesh sides or darker, hair sides. This phenomenon needs to be kept in mind when making a fake codex.

Now if you create your pages by folding a single sheet repeatedly, and then keep them in that order, Gregory's Law is followed automatically. If, on the other hand, you create quires by folding sheets once and then stacking them, you have to keep in mind the rule and make sure you follow it. 

The individual pages can now be cut along the folds in the paper to create a quire of sheets. It is not so obvious from this photo, but the sheets follow Gregory's Rule:


Lacking an assistant, I had to use one hand to take the pictures with my laptop's camera, and another to prop open the sheets, but I inserted a craft knife into the fold about to be cut.

Such a quire of sheets was usually tacked together to make sure they remained in order. The numbers on the pages of course also helps with this. Such numbers can be seen on some actual medieval manuscripts, though I found that this issue neatly illustrated the difficulties of doing any research, and even more, doing research on the web. For example, here is one page from a manuscript that I found online:

Saint Michael Battling a Demon, from a 15th Century Book of Hours

So was this page originally numbered? It is difficult to tell, because of the decorations all over it. But then I found another reproduction of the same page, showing that it actually had a clear margin:


Plenty of room there for a number, though I don't see one here. Perhaps it was never numbered, or perhaps the number was later erased - one cannot really tell from a reproduction.

I did find some examples of pages that clearly have numbers/marks in the margin:

The Hours of the Cross in Latin, northeast France, 14th century, 24 leaves 

Book of Hours and other devotional texts in Latin and French Netherlands, circa 1460, 313 leaves

In both cases a number can be seen in the upper right corner, but I don't know if these were written there by the original scribes or added later; I'll take my instructor's word for it that such numbering systems were used. 

And so, on to my own fake parchment that I prepared last week. I decided to first cut the original A3 sheets into A4 ones and then fold them over once to create A5-sized pages, and then stack them and simply check to make sure I follow Gregory's Rule. In the Middle Ages, folded sheets were sometimes written and illuminated before they were finally cut into pages, but I do not really have enough space to do it that way. Here are two quires, each made from an original A3 sheet cut and folded to form four A5 folios. It is perhaps not apparent from my rather grainy webcam photo, but they follow Gregory's Rule too:


Because of the small number of pages that are going to be used for this project, I did not bother to tack the quires together; I don't think it will be difficult to keep track. Next week, I'll continue with process of turning them into a brief illuminated manuscript.

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