Just like modern writers, their medieval counterparts also had a tried-and-tested process to produce a well-written and goodlooking manuscript – only that this process was a lot more complicated and lasted much longer than today. Join me in the scriptorium to discover the individual steps involved in producing a medieval manuscript or book, from the inspiration of the muse – or a divine angel – to the transcript copied for a wide audience!
Preparations for making a medieval manuscript
When we think of manuscripts, images of yellowed scrolls and monks equipped with a quil and hunched over books in dim candlelight tend to pop up. But the manuscript had already gone a long way by the time it arrived on someone’s desk, and it all started with the preparation of the writing material.
If "manuscript" comes from "manu scriptum," meaning "handwritten," then these preparations fall under "manufact," from "manu factum," meaning „handmade“, because in the absence of notebooks and laptops, the medieval artists first needed something on which they could let their thoughts flow: a writing surface.
So, first of all, depending on the size of the work to be written, they obtained a nice stack of parchment, either from the monastery's own production or, especially from the 13th century onwards, from the medieval specialized shops of tanners or so-called parchmenters.
Parchment or Paper?
Until the late Middle Ages, parchment was the most popular writing material. It was obtained through an elaborate process from tanned animal hides (calf or sheep; Italy mainly used goat skins) and could be folded and sewn together after being written on – as long as the material didn't dry out too much because then it would become hard as a rock and impossible to write on. If preserved carefully, though, it could last for millennia. Errors could simply be scraped away, and the corresponding spot would be overwritten – which could lead to copyists making (unwelcome) changes in the text of medieval manuscripts.
Paper did exist – it arrived in Europe from China through Muslim Spain in the 12th century – but it only became widespread from the 14th century, especially with the invention of the printing press towards the end of the Middle Ages. Since paper was made from linen rags – only from the 19th century was wood cellulose used – it was cheaper and easier to produce than parchment, although less durable. Additionally, paper was relatively forgery-proof since texts could not simply be changed by scraping away the writing, which made this material perfect for all kinds of legal documents.
Of course, making medieval manuscripts required additional supplies, such as ink, writing utensils, thread, leather and wood, but unlike parchment, these were readily available.
For less valuable and/or official manuscripts, such as invoices and private documents, the remnants from book production or the less beautiful scraps of parchment from the edges of animal hides were sufficient. In everyday use, wax or slate tablets were also used, as in ancient times, which could be written on with a stylus and erased to be used again.
Pre-writing handiwork: folding, marking, sewing
Now, how did they turn the animal skin into a book format as we know it? Quite simply, through manual work, as follows:
- Folding: First, a sheet of parchment was taken, cut to the appropriate size and shape, and folded in the middle. This resulted in a bifolium (= double sheet), i.e. four pages with a front side (recto) and a back side (verso). This nomenclature is the origin of the obscure citations from manuscripts, such as folio 1v = back side (verso) of the first page of a folded parchment. The formats for medieval manuscripts ranged from small, for girdle books carried on your belt, to huge, such as the Winchester Bible measuring 58 x 80 cm, the most beautiful and largest of the oversized Bibles produced for liturgical purposes in the 12th century in England and on the continent.
- Marking: Lines were then marked on the pages, either with a knife or an awl and small holes, or with a ruler and a blunt stylus with black or, rarely, brown ink. In large scriptoria, this monotonous task was usually carried out by a junior scribe to free the experienced scribes for the actual work on the manuscript. The length of the lines depended not only on the format but also on the status and quality of the text: works such as Bibles and hagiographies were laid out with wide margins for illuminations and illustrations; less important works had narrow margins and consisted mostly of text.
- Sewing: Four or six bifolia were then placed one inside the other and their backs stitched together to form booklets called quires.
Handwriting medieval manuscripts
Only now did the author or scribe, as part of the monastic morning routine, begin the actual writing work. Armed with a pen, usually a goose quill, a penknife for sharpening the pen and erasing any writing errors, as well as black ink, usually made from ground oak galls mixed with iron salts and tannic acids, both male and female scribes pursued their craft, meticulously and artfully putting letters on the prepared parchment.
In addition to sufficient physical writing materials, medieval scribes needed one thing above all: time. This was not only due to the fact that the quills had to be constantly dipped in ink but also to the nature of the script being used: Each letter was written individually, and depending on the script style, the pen had to be lifted and repositioned multiple times.
An average scribe of the 10th to 12th centuries wrote or copied approximately 200 lines of text per day, which corresponds to 33 to 40 lines per hour. The introduction of cursive scripts in the late Middle Ages did not change much regarding the time required for manuscript production. For the transcription of Gregory the Great's commentary on the Book of Job from the 15th century – if I'm correct, it's this over 370-page specimen https://digital.nls.uk/early-manuscripts/browse/archive/216593198 – it is estimated that it took approximately fifteen months to complete.
Once the text was finished, the scribe proceeded to highlight important parts of the text in red for easier reading and guidance. This was done by either the scribes themselves or by passing the task to a rubricator, who added headings and initials in red ink, or highlighted smaller initials with red strokes.
The rubricator or someone else also proofread the text for errors and corrected them, if necessary. Other elements, such as table of contents or marginal notes, were also added to the text at this point.
The third and final step in creating the content of a medieval manuscript, if applicable, was the more or less elaborate illustration of the text through various types of decorated initials or pictures within the text. This typically involved one or more individuals drawing, gilding and colouring the illustrations.
Especially with Bibles, this step could significantly postpone the completion of a book – not by weeks or months, but by years – or even prevent it altogether. The illumination of the aforementioned Winchester Bible, for example, took fifteen years and shows the individual drawing, gilding and colouring stages. It also proves the collaboration of many different artists, each with their own "handwriting" when it comes to illustrations, working on the project over a long period of time. Incidentally, the reason why we can see the various stages at all, is that, even after fifteen years, the illustrations were never completed.
From medieval manuscript to book
If the finished medieval manuscript was a simple text such as an invoice, document or letter, it would now be "signed" or sealed and then put to its purpose. For longer and more elaborate texts, another manual step followed, in which several or many quires, as appropriate, were sewn or stitched together along their spines to form a codex, a book.
To ensure that the individual quires were bound in the correct order, scribes noted the first few words from the beginning of the first front page of the next quire on the last (back) page of the preceding quire. Alternatively, they numbered the last pages of each booklet in alphabetical order.
Once the quires were in the correct order, book covers made of oak or beech wood, sometimes leather, were then sewn onto them with thread. A layer of calf or goat leather, secured to the manuscript with parchment inserts on the inside, provided additional protection for the wooden book covers.
High-quality texts could also have covers made of, for example, sealskin or be decorated with ivory, metalwork, gemstones, or pearls.
Who wrote medieval manuscripts?
We can now understand how medieval manuscripts or books were produced from a craft perspective, but a mystery still remains: To whom do we owe the content, the texts? Who are the people behind the letters? Who wrote the first version, and who ensured its dissemination?
Definitely not only the stereotypical monk in his lonely scriptorium, as some of the surviving documents may suggest, even though many manuscripts and pieces of evidence were lost, especially in England, through the dissolution and destruction of monasteries and their libraries by Henry VIII in the 16th century. Assigning a name to a text is also often difficult because many manuscripts are neither signed, titled, nor mentioned in other texts.
Not always men
Still, it is probable that women were equally diligent and sometimes highly sought-after scribes and copyists of medieval manuscripts. One such proof is, for example, a letter with a poem in it, dating from around the year 732 from Saint Lioba, a nun in the double Benedictine monastery of Wimborne in Dorset and later abbess of the monastery in Tauberbischofsheim, to her relative and English Benedictine monk Saint Boniface.
This not only makes her the first named English female poet, but also shows that nuns, who were generally highly educated anyway, did not only write letters, but also poetry – an art that she apparently learned from Abbess Eadburga, who was so skilled that Saint Boniface specifically asked her to produce a copy of the letters of St. Peter for him.
In some manuscripts where the author is unknown, the consistent use of feminine word endings points to the fact that they were most likely written by women. Unfortunately, a gender differentiation based on handwriting is impossible since the script styles used left little room for individual characteristics.
Not always monastic
Parchment was extremely expensive, and writing was time-consuming, so the production of manuscripts was not only a matter of time but also a matter of money. However, as the development of a wealthy bourgeoisie advanced and the use of inexpensive paper as a writing material became more widespread, the late Middle Ages saw an increase in the available spare time and money that fostered manuscript production by people outside the monasteries. Furthermore, there was a growing demand for books and written materials, leading to an outsourcing of writing work from monasteries to specialized professional scribes.
Not always the actual author
No title, no name, no printed, unchangeable text, not to mention copyright? In those days, it was only a matter of time until manuscripts would be subject to changes, corrections, but also falsifications.
As early as the proofreading stage, a scribe could already scrape away and change letters and words in the first version of a text. Those copying the manuscript could even add or omit entire sentences and passages – there was no definitive, final and unchangeable printed text like today – which, in addition, might even be officially recorded and registered somewhere. Thus, subsequent scribes and editors had free rein in dealing with the text and could copy, edit, change, transform, shorten, and/or supplement it with more or less useful and related material as they saw fit for their purposes and needs.
Depending on the changes made, the texts selected, and how they were combined – with a manuscript composed of individual booklets, it was easy enough to sneak in an additional sheet of parchment with completely different texts – this could deeply affect the meaning of the original text or the way it was intended to be understood or was understood.
Marie de France, the first named vernacular poet of France, is quite aware of this danger to her texts and tries everything to ensure her texts are read and understood correctly. So the question of who wrote medieval manuscripts often also entails another question, namely whether what we're reading is indeed what the author originally intended to say.
Mary Wellesley: Hidden Hands: The Lives of Manuscripts and Their Makers
Mittelalterliche Geschichte: Kodikologie: Schriftträger
Mittelalterliche Geschichte: Kodikologie: Buchherstellung
British Library: A rough guide to making a manuscript
Medievalists.net: Seven videos on making medieval manuscripts