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Quills - Part 3: Ink

It was not unusual for some ladies to have been instructed in reading and writing. In fact, because of the propensity of men to leave the home to follow 'manly' pursuits, it was left to the women of the household to read documents. An example of this is Queen Margaret of Scotland. Her husband was illiterate, but he bought her books for her pleasure.
* A lady in a tent doing calligraphy

"Thin ink, bad vellum, difficult text. This vellum is hairy." - Translations of complaints by medieval Irish monks in the margins of manuscripts.

There were many ways the early medieval scribe could make his ink (O.E. blęc). Unfortunately, many of the ink recipes have been lost, although some still survive.

Here are some ink recipes:

1: (Taken from the twelfth century manual 'On Divers Arts' by Theophilus)
'When you are going to make ink, cut some pieces of [hawthorn wood in April or May, before they grow blossoms or leaves. Make little bundles of them and let them lie in the shade for two, three, or four weeks, until they are dried out a little. Then you should have wooden mallets with which you should pound the thorn on another hard piece of wood, until you have completely removed the bark. Put this immediately into a barrel full of water. Fill two, three, four or five barrels with bark and water and so let them stand for eight days, until the water absorbs all the sap of the bark into itself. Next, pour this water into a very clean pan or cauldron, put fire under it and boil it. From time to time also put some of the bark itself into the pan, so that if any of the sap has remained in it, it will be boiled out. After boiling it a little, take out the bark and again put some more in. After this is done, boil the remaining water down to a third, take it out of that pan and put it into a smaller one. Boil it until it grows black and is beginning to thicken, being absolutely careful not to add any water except that which is mixed with the sap. When you see it begin to thicken, add a third part of pure wine, put it into two or three new pots, and continue boiling until you see that it forms a sort of skin on top.
'Then take the pots off the fire and put them in the sun until the black ink purges itself from the red dregs. Next, take some small, carefully sewn parchment bags with bladders inside, pour the pure ink into them, and hang them in the sun until [the ink] is completely dry. Whenever you want, take some of the dry material, temper it with wine over the fire, add a little green vitriol [iron sulphate] and write. If it happens through carelessness that the ink is not black enough, take a piece of iron a finger thick, put it into the fire, let it get red-hot, and immediately throw it into the ink.'

(For those who prefer a more technical explanation: The ink would be composed mostly of iron tannate or gallate. The acids are extracted from the partially decomposed bark and, after drying for storage, are freshly mixed for use with wine and green vitriol. The ink could be made blacker by adding iron or iron oxide directly. It was commonly added as metallic filings, but the method of quenching an iron rod as recommended by Theophilus will also work, as it will produce a reactive oxide scale.)

2: (A traditional ink recipe)
This one is much simpler. Take a quantity of albumen [ egg white ] and mix thoroughly with the soot. Then add honey and mix into a smooth paste. The ink is then ready to use.

3: (Another traditional ink)
Gather some 'lawyer's wig' mushrooms ( Corprinus comatus) or some fungus known as 'Shaggy Ink Caps' and place in a glazed pot or small cauldron. Leave somewhere warm for several days to allow the mushrooms to deliquesce. Pour off the liquid and either use it as it is or boil until it is about half its original volume for a blacker. (Note: this ink is less permanent than some of the others, but is easy to produce.)

There were many other types of ink in use at the time, many of them obtained by suspending black pigments in some other medium (cf. recipe 2). Black pigments included charcoal and bone-black (obtained by burning bone in the absence of oxygen). Compounds of gallic acid were also used as the basis for many black inks, which worked by oxidising the surface of the vellum.

If you are using a modern ink, beware of pure Indian ink - this is far 'blacker' than most of the early medieval inks. If you do use Indian ink, add a quantity of red or brown ink to it before writing.

In Anglo-Saxon England liquid ink was kept in inkwells made of horn (O.E. blęchorn).

If you want to learn how to write authentic scripts (from the first to thirteenth century) there is a very good book on the subject published by Dover Books - 'Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique by Mark Drogin ISBN 0-486-26142-5.

'On Divers Arts' by Theophilus is also available from Dover Books ISBN 0-486-23784-2.

Warning: Before you rush out and decide to produce your own copy of the Lindisfarne Gospels, remember that early medieval gospels could represent more than one man/years worth of work, could use in excess of 500 calf skins and weigh more than 75lbs with its wooden cover. However if you do want to try your hand at early medieval calligraphy here are some addresses where you may purchase vellum and other calligraphic supplies:

William Cowley Parchment Works,
97 Caldecote Street,
Newport Pagnal, Bucks.
MK16 0DB.
Tel: 01908-610-038. Fax: 01908-611-071.

L. Cornelissen & Son Ltd.,
105 Great Russell Street,
London,
WC1B 3RY.
Tel: 0207-636-1045. Fax 0207-636-3655.


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