Medieval Ink

By David N. Carvalho

Medieval Ink



THE “Secrets” of the twelfth century, in so far as they relate to methods of making ink, indicate many departures from those contained in the more ancient ones. Frequent mention is made of sour galls, aleppo galls, green and blue vitriol, the lees of wine, black amber, sugar, fish-glue and a host of unimportant materials as being employed in the admixture of black inks. Combinations of some of these materials are expressed in formulas, the most important one of which details with great particularity the commingling together of an infusion of nut-galls, green vitriol (sulphate of iron) and fish-glue (isinglass); the two first (tanno-gallate of iron) when used alone, forms the sole base of all unadulterated “gall” inks.

Dates are appended to some of these ink and other formulas. The “tanno-gallate of iron” one has, however, no date. But as it appears closely following a date of A. D. 1126, it must have been written about that time.

Documents, public and private, bearing dates nearly contemporary with that era, written in ink of like type, are still extant, confirming in a remarkable degree the “Secreta” formula, and establishing the fact that the first half of the twelfth century marks the epoch in which the “gall” or modern ink of today came into vogue.

Its adoption by the priests stamped it with the seal of the Church and the arrival from the West about the same period of flax or linen paper with the added fact that these assimilated so well together, later placed them both on the popular basis which has continued to the present time.

While the Secreta which contains the “gall” ink formula is of Italian origin, the invention of this ink belongs solely to an Asiatic country, from whence in gradual stages by way of Arabia, Spain and France, it finally reached Rome. Thence, through the Church, information about it was conveyed to wherever civilization existed.

We are not confined in our investigations of ancient MSS. to any particular locality or date, as the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are prolific of “gall” ink monuments covering an immense territory. Such inks when used unadulterated, remain in an almost pristine color condition; while the other inks to which some pigment or color had been added, probably to make them more agreeable in appearance and more free-flowing, with a mistaken idea of improving them, are much discolored and in every instance present but slight indications of their original condition.

The question of the character of the paper employed during these eras, composed of different kinds of fibrous vegetable substances, possesses some importance when discussing its relationship to inks. Many authors certify to the manufacture and use of “cotton” in the eleventh, twelfth and later centuries.  Madan, however, in treating this subject, makes the following comments which are in line with my own observations:

“Paper has for long been the common substance for miscellaneous purposes of ordinary writing, and has at all times been formed exclusively from rags (chiefly of linen) reduced to pull), poured out on a frame in a thin watery sheet, and gradually dried and given consistence by the action of heat. It has been a popular belief, found in every book till 1886 (now entirely disproved, but probably destined to die hard), that the common yellowish thick paper, with rough fibrous edge, found especially in Greek MSS. till the fifteenth century, was paper of quite another sort, and made of cotton (charta bombycna, bombyx being usually silk, but also used of any fine fibre such as cotton). The microscope has at last conclusively shown that these two papers are simply two different kinds of ordinary linen-rag paper.”

De Vinne speaking, of paper and paper-making says:

“The gradual development of paper-making in Europe is but imperfectly presented through these fragmentary facts. Paper may have been made for many years before it found chroniclers who thought the manufacture worthy of notice. The Spanish paper-mills of Toledo which were at work in the year 1085, and an ancient family of paper-makers which was honored with marked favor by the king of Sicily in the year 1102, are carelessly mentioned by contemporary writers as if paper-making was an old and established business. It does not appear that paper was a novelty at a much earlier period.  The bulls of the popes of the eighth and ninth centuries were written on cotton card or cotton paper, but no writer called attention to this card, or described it as a new material. It has been supposed that this paper was made in Asia, but it could have been made in Europe. A paper-like fabric, made from the barks of trees, was used for writing by the Longobards in the seventh century, and a coarse imitation of the Egyptian papyrus, in the form of a strong brown paper, had been made by the Romans as early as the third century. The art of compacting in a web the macerated fibres of plants seems to have been known and practised to some extent in Southern Europe long before the establishment of Moorish paper-mills.

“The Moors brought to Spain and Sicily not an entirely new invention, but an improved method of making paper, and what was more important, a culture and civilization that kept this method in constant exercise. It was chiefly for the lack of ability and lack of disposition to put paper to proper use that the earlier European knowledge of paper-making was so barren of results. The art of book-making as it was then practised was made subservient to the spirit of luxury more than to the desire for knowledge. Vellum was regarded by the copyist as the only substance fit for writing on, even when it was so scarce that it could be used only for the most expensive books. The card-like cotton paper once made by the Saracens was certainly known in Europe for many years before its utility was recognized. Hallam says that the use of this cotton paper was by no means general or frequent, except in Spain or Italy, and perhaps in the south of France, until the end of the fourteenth century.  Nor was it much used in Italy for books.

“Paper came before its time and had to wait for recognition. It was sorely needed. The Egyptian manufacture of papyrus, which was in a state of decay in the seventh century, ceased entirely in the ninth or tenth. Not many books were written during this period, but there was then, and for at least three centuries afterwards, an unsatisfied demand for something to write upon. Parchment was so scarce that reckless copyists frequently resorted to the desperate expedient of effacing the writing on old and lightly esteemed manuscripts. It was not a difficult task. The writing ink then used was usually made of lamp-black, gum and vinegar; it it had but a feeble encaustic property, and it did not bite in or penetrate the parchment. The work of effacing this ink was accomplished by moistening the parchment with a weak alkaline solution and by rubbing it with pumice stone. This treatment did not entirely obliterate the writing, but made it so indistinct that the parchment could be written over the second time. Manuscripts so treated are now known as palimpsests. All the large European public libraries have copies of palimpsests, which are melancholy illustrations of the literary tastes of many writers or bookmakers during the Middle Ages. More convincingly than by argument they show the utility of paper. Manuscripts of the Gospels, of the Iliad, and of works of the highest merit, often of great beauty and accuracy, are dimly seen underneath stupid sermons, and theological writings of a nature so paltry that no man living cares to read them. In Some instances the first writing has been so thoroughly scrubbed out that its meaning is irretrievably lost.

“Much as paper was needed, it was not at all popular with copyists; their prejudice was not altogether unreasonable, for it was thick, coarse, knotty, and in every way unfitted for the display or ornamental penmanship or illumination. The cheaper quality, then known as cotton paper, was especially objectionable.  It seems to have been so badly made as to need governmental interference. Frederick II, of Germany, in the year 1221, foreseeing evils that might arise from bad paper, made a decree by which he made invalid all public documents that should be put on cotton paper, and ordered them within two years to be transcribed upon parchment.  Peter II, of Spain, in the year 1338, publicly commanded the paper-makers of Valencia and Xativa to make their paper of a better quality and equal to that of an earlier period.

“The better quality of paper, now known as linen paper, had the merits of strength, flexibility, and durability in a high degree, but it was set aside by the copyists because the fabric was too thick and the surface was too rough. The art of calendering or polishing papers until they were of a smooth, glossy surface, which was then practised by the Persians, was unknown to, or at least unpractised by, the early European makers. The changes or fashion in the selection of writing papers are worthy of passing notice. The rough hand-made papers so heartily despised by the copyists of the thirteenth century are now preferred by neat penmen and skilled draughtsmen.

The imitations of mediaeval paper, thick, harsh, and dingy, and showing the marks of the wires upon which the fabric was couched, are preferred by men of letters for books and for correspondence, while highly polished modern plate papers, with surfaces much more glossy than any preparation of vellum, are now rejected by them as finical and effeminate.

“There is a popular notion that the so-called inventions of paper and xylographic printing were gladly welcomed by men of letters, and that the new fabric and the new art were immediately pressed into service. The facts about to be presented in succeeding chapters will lead to a different conclusion. We shall see that the makers of playing cards and of image prints were the men who first made extended use of printing, and that self-taught and unprofessional copyists were the men who gave encouragement to the manufacture of paper. The more liberal use of paper at the beginning of the fifteenth century by this newly-created class of readers and book-buyers marks the period of transition and of mental and mechanical development for which the crude arts of paper-making and of black printing had been waiting for centuries. We shall also see that if paper had been ever so cheap and common during the Middle Ages, it would have worked no changes in education or literature; it could not have been used by the people, for they were too illiterate; it would not have been used by the professional copyists, for they preferred vellum and despised the substitute.

“The scarcity of vellum in one century, and its abundance in another, are indicated by the size of written papers during the same periods. Before the sixth century, legal documents were generally written upon one side only; in the tenth century the practice of writing upon both sides of the vellum became common. During the thirteenth century valuable documents were often written upon strips two inches wide and but three and a half inches long. At the end of the fourteenth century these strips went out of fashion. The more general use of paper had diminished the demand for vellum and increased the supply. In the fifteenth century, legal documents on rolls of sewed vellum twenty feet in length were not uncommon. All the valuable books of the fourteenth century were written on vellum. In the library of the Louvre the manuscripts on paper, compared to those on vellum, were as one to twenty-eight; in the library of the Dukes of Burgundy, one-fifth of the books were of paper.  The increase in the proportion of paper books is a fair indication of the increasing popularity of paper; but it is obvious that vellum was even then considered as the more suitable substance for a book of value.”

The curious contract belonging to the fourteenth century which follows, is a literal copy of the original.  It does not seem to specify whether the book is to be made of vellum or paper. In other respects the minute details no doubt prevented any misunderstanding between the contracting parties.

“August 26th, 1346--There appeared Robert Brekeling, scribe, and swore that he would observe the contract made between him and Sir John Forber, viz., that the said Robert would write one Psalter with the Kalender for the work of the said Sir John for 5 s. and 6 d.; and in the same Psalter, in the same character, a Placebo and a Dirige, with a Hymnal and Collectary, for 4 s. and 3 d. And the said Robert will illuminate (‘luminabet’) all the Psalms with great gilded letters laid in with colours; and all the large letters of the Hymnal and Collectary will he illuminate with gold and vermillion, except the great letters of double feasts, which shall be as the large gilt letters are in the Psalter.  And all the letters at the commencement of the verses shall be illuminated with good azure and vermillion; and all the letters at the beginning of the Nocturns shall be great uncial (unciales) letters, containing V. lines, but the Beatus Vir and Dixit Dominus shall contain VI. or VII. lines; and for the aforesaid illumination and for colours he [John] will give 5 s. 6 d., and for gold he will give 18 d., and 2 s. for a cloak and fur trimming. Item one robe—one coverlet, one sheet, and one pillow.”


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