Early Medieval Ink

By David N. Carvalho.


Most of the documents of early mediaeval times which remain to us containing ink in fairly good condition, like charters, protocols, bulls, wills, diplomas, and the like, were written or engrossed with “Indian” ink, in which respect we of the present century continue to follow such established precedent when preparing important written instruments. It is not remarkable, therefore, that the black inks of the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth centuries preserve their blackness so much better than many belonging to succeeding ages, including a new class of inks which could not stand the test of time.

During the twelfth and first years of the thirteenth centuries there were bitter controversies among Talmudic (Hebrew) scholars, relative to the character of the ink to be employed in the preparation of ritualistic writings. Nice distinctions were drawn as to the real meaning of the word deyo as understood by the Jews of the western part of the world, and the Arabic word alchiber, as then understood nearer Palestine and the other eastern countries.

The French Jews were using “tusche” (typical of the “Indian” ink), while the Germans were employing “pomegranate” and “gall” inks. Representatives from interested religious Jewish centers came together and resolved to submit their differences for final adjustment to Maimonides, born in Spain, A. D.  1130 , and died A. D. 1204--the then greatest living Hebrew theologian and authority on biblical and rabbinical laws. Discarding all side issues, their differences were seemingly incorporated into three questions and thus propounded to him:

1.   Is the Talmudic deyo identical with alchiber?

2.   Of what ingredient should the Talmudic deyo consist, if it is not the same as alchiber?

3.   Is alchiber to be understood as relating to the gall-apple and chalkanthum (blue vitriol)?


To the first and third questions Maimonides declared that deyo and alchiber were not identical; and for the reasons that the Talmud declares deyo to be a writing material which does not remain on the surface on which it is placed and to be easily effaced.  On the other hand alchiber contains gum and other things which causes it to adhere to the writing surface.

To the second question he affirmed that the Talmud distinguishes a double kind of deyo, one containing little or no gum and being a fluid, and the other referring to “pulverized coal of the vine, soot from burning olive oil, tar, rosin and honey, pressed into plates to be dissolved in water when wanted for use.” Furthermore, while the Talmud excludes the use of certain inks of which iron vitriol was one, it does not exclude atramentum, (chalkanthum, copper vitriol), because the Talmud never speaks of it. He insisted that the Talmud requires a dry ink (deyo).

As one of the last entries made in the Talmud (a great collection of legal decisions by the ancient Rabbis, Hebrew traditions, etc., and believed to have been commenced in the second century of the Christian era) is claimed to belong to the sixth century, mentions gall-apples and iron (copper) vitriol, it must have referred to “gall” ink. Further investigation discloses the fact that such galls were of Chinese origin and as we know they do not contain the necessary ferment which the aleppo and other galls possess for inducing a transformation of the tannin into gallic acid, no complete union could therefore obtain.  Hence the value of this composition was limited until the time when yeast and other materials were introduced to overcome its deficiencies.

Hotz-Osterwald of Zurich, antiquarian and scholar, has asserted that with the exception of the carbon inks employed on papyrus, the writing pigments of antiquity and the Middle Ages have scarcely been investigated. The dark to light-brown pigment, hitherto a problem, universally used on parchment, he contends upon historical, chemical and microscopic evidence is identical with oeno-cyanin and was prepared for the most part from yeast, and was first employed as a pigment. Contrary to the general opinion it contains no iron, except frequently accidental traces, and after its appearance in Greece in the third century, it formed almost exclusively the ink of the ancient manuscripts, until displaced by the gallate inks, said to have been introduced by the Arabians. These accidental traces of iron were due to the employment of iron vessels in the making of the ink.

My own observations in this direction confirm and establish the fact that it was the custom in the early centuries of the Christian era to utilize yeast or an analogous compound as part of the composition of ink, to which was added sepia, or the rind of the pomegranate apple previously dissolved by heat in alkaline solutions.

This analogous compound was probably the material procured from wine lees (dregs), deposited after fermentation has commenced, and which after considerable application of heat yields not only most of the tannin contained in the stones and fruit stalks, but a viscid compound characteristic of gelatin and of a red-purple color which in course of time changes to brown.

Bloxam says that the coloring matter of grapes and of red wine appears to be “cyanin.”

One of the methods of treating wine lees, as translated in the eighteenth century from an old Italian secreta, is sufficiently curious to partly quote:

“Dry the Lees (dregs) of wine with a gentle fire and fill with them two third of a large earthen Retort, place this retort in a reverberatory furnace, and fitting it to a large receiver, give a small fire to it to heat the Retort by degrees, and drive forth an insipid phlegm; when vapours begin to rise, you must take out the phlegm and luting carefully the junctures of your vessels, quicken the fire little by little until you find the receiver filled with white clouds; continue it in this condition, and you perceive the receiver to cool, raise the fire to the utmost extremity, and continue it so, until there arise no more vapours. When the vessels are cold unlute the receiver, and shaking it to make the Volatile salt, which sticks to it, fall to the bottom, pour it all into a bolt-head; fit it to a Head with a small receiver; lute well the junctures and placing it in sand, give a little fire under it, and the volatile salt will rise and stick to the head, and the top of the Bolt-head; take off your head and set on another in its place; gather your salt and stop it tip quickly, for it easily dissolves into a liquor; continue the fire, and take care to gather the Salt according as you see it appear; but when there rises no more salt, a liquor will distill, of which you must draw about three ounces, and put out the fire,” &c.

The “lees of wine,” in connection with the ancient methods of ink-making is also referred to by the younger Pliny in his twenty-fifth book, which the Edinburgh Review has carefully translated and printed:

“INK (or literally) BLACKING.—Ink also may be set down among the artificial (or compound) drugs, although it is a mineral derived from two sources. For, it is sometimes developed in the form of a saline efflorescence,--or is a real mineral of sulphureous color—chosen for this purpose.  There have been painters who dug up from graves colored coals (CARBON). But all these are useless and new-fangled notions. For it is made from soot in various forms, as (for instance) of burnt rosin or pitch. For this purpose, they have built manufactories not emitting that smoke. The ink of the very best quality is made from the smoke of torches. An inferior article is made from the soot of furnaces and bath-house chimneys. There are some (manufacturers) also, who employ the dried lees of wine; and they do say that if the lees so employed were from good wine, the quality of the ink is thereby much improved. Polygnotus and Micon, celebrated painters at Athens, made their black paint from burnt grape-vines; they gave it the name of TRYGYNON. APELLES, we are told, made HIS from burnt ivory, and called it elephantina ‘ivory-black.’ Indigo has been recently imported,-- a substance whose composition I have not yet investigated. The dyers make theirs from the dark crust that gradually accumulates on brass-kettles.  Ink is made also from torches (pine-knots), and from charcoal pounded fine in mortars. ‘The cuttlefish’ has a remarkable qualify in this respect; but the coloring-matter which it produces is not used in the manufacture of ink. All ink is improved by exposure to the sun’s rays. Book-writers’ ink has gum mixed with it,--weavers’ ink is made up with glue. Ink whose materials have been liquified by the agency of an acid is erased with great difficulty.”

There are but few exceptions respecting the general sameness of ink receipts of the succeeding centuries, one of which is the “Pomegranate,” credited to the seventh century but really belonging to an earlier period:

“Of the dried Pommegranite (apple) rind take an ounce, boil it in a pint of water until ¾ be gone; add ½ pint of small beer wort and once more boil it away so that only a ¼ pint remain.  After you shall have strained it, boiling hot through a linnen cloth and it comes cold, being then of a glutinous consistence, drop in a ‘bit’ of Sal Alkali and add as much warm water as will bring it to a due fluidity and a gold brown color for writing with a pen.”

Following this formula and without any modifications, I obtained an excellent ink of durable quality, but of poor color, from a standpoint of blackness.

A less ancient “Secreta,” signed by the Italian monk “Theophilus,” who lived about the commencement of the eleventh century, is most interesting:

“To make ink, cut for yourself wood of the thorn-trees in April or May, before they produce flowers or leaves, and collecting them in small bundles, allow them to lie in the shade for two, three, or four weeks, until they are somewhat dry. Then have wooden mallets, with which you beat these thorns upon another piece of hard wood, until you peel off the bark everywhere, put which immediately into a barrelful of water. When you have filled two, or three, or four, or five barrels with bark and water, allow them so to stand for eight days, until the waters imbibe all the sap of the bark.  Afterwards put this water into a very clean pan, or into a cauldron, and fire being placed under it, boil it; from time to time, also, throw into the pan some of this bark, so that whatever sap may remain in it may be boiled out. When you have cooked it a little, throw it out, and again put in more; which done, boil down the remaining water unto a third part, and then pouring it out of this pan, put it into one smaller, and cook it until it grows black and begins to thicken; add one third part of pure wine, and putting it into two or three new pots, cook it until you see a sort of skin show itself on the surface; then taking these pots from the fire, place them in the sun until the black ink purifies itself from the red dregs. Afterwards take small bags of parchment carefully sewn, and bladders, and pouring in the pure ink, suspend them in the sun until all is quite dry; And when dry, take from it as much as you wish, and temper it with wine over the fire, and, adding a little vitriol, write.  But, if it should happen through negligence that your ink be not black enough, take a fragment of the thickness of a finger and putting it into the fire, allow it to glow, and throw it directly into the ink.”

After reciting many receipts which pertain to other arts, this good old monk concludes:

“When you shall have re-read this often, and have committed it to your tenacious memory, you shall thus recompense me for this care of instruction, that, as often as you shall successfully have made use of my work, you pray for me for the pity of omnipotent God, who knows that I have written these things which are here arranged, neither through love of human approbation, nor through desire of temporal reward, nor have I stolen anything precious or rare through envious jealousy, nor have I kept back anything reserved for myself alone; but, in augmentation of the honour and glory of His name, I have consulted the progress and hastened to aid the necessities of many men.”

The “thorn” trees which Theophilus mentions are asserted by some writers (with whom I do not agree) to be those commonly known as the “Norway spruce,” a species of pine of lofty proportions sometimes rising to the height of 150 feet with a trunk from four to five feet in diameter. It lives to a great age believed to exceed in many instances 450 years.  The leaves (needles, thorns) are short but stand thickly upon the branches and are of a dusky green color shining on the upper surface; the fruit is nearly cylindrical in form and of a purple color covered with scales ragged at the edges. It is a native of Europe and Northern Asia. It furnishes the material known as Burgundy pitch which is obtained by removing the juice which is secreted in the bark of the tree; it is purified by a melting process and straining either through a cloth or a layer of straw. It gives forth a peculiar odor not unpleasant, resembling turpentine.  The Burgundy pitch or rosin is soluble in hot alcohol (spirits of wine).

An ink prepared after the method laid down by this monk, assuming that he referred to the spruce-pine, while troublesome to write with, would be almost as lasting as “Indian” ink and would be most difficult to erase from parchment into which it would be absorbed due to its alcoholic qualities.

“The ink,” remarks Montfaucon, “which we see in the most ancient Greek manuscripts, has evidently lost much of its pristine blackness; yet neither has it become altogether yellow or faint, but is rather tawny or deep red, and often not far from a vermillion.” While there are some monuments of this kind of ink in fair condition of the fourth and succeeding centuries, they aggregate but a very small proportion of the vast number of principally Indian ink specimens which remain to us of those epochs. As exemplars, however, of a forgotten class of inks belonging to a still more remote antiquity, careful research adduces certain proof of their existence more than nine hundred years before the Christian era commenced.

Reference has earlier been made to the ancient Myrobolam ink, which was characteristically the same in color phenomena as those which Montfaucon mentions.  These “tawny” colored inks I estimate were products obtained from the “thorn” trees spoken of by the monk Theophilus. The thorn trees were of two species. The pomegranate, anciently called the “Punic apple,” because it was largely employed by the Carthagenians for the purposes of dyeing and tanning; and the acacia, known in Egyptian times as the lotus. The former was held in such high esteem that the Arabians and Egyptians made it an emblem to designate one of their dieties and termed it raman.

The products of these thorn, trees were collectively used together as ink, most of the tannin being obtained from the pomegranate, and the gum from the acacia.





Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved