Making Manuscripts

(gentle guitar music)

- [Voiceover] In the middle ages,

parchment was used to make the pages of books.

Parchment was made from the skins of animals.

The transition from a fresh skin to a surface

suitable for writing was a slow and laborious process.

The parchment maker selected

skins of sheep, goats, or calves.

Skins were soaked in limewater for three to ten days,

to loosen the animals' hair.

The parchment maker than scraped away the hair,

and any remaining flesh.

After this, the skin was soaked in fresh water,

to remove the lime,

and then stretched tightly on a frame.

A special, rounded knife was used to

scrape the hide to the desired thickness.

The process of scraping

continued over the course of several days.

During this time, the parchment maker continually

tightened the tension on the stretching frame,

while the skin dried.

The result was parchment,

a smooth and durable material,

that could last over a thousand years.

Before parchment could be written on,

it had to be specially prepared.

First, the parchment was rubbed with

pumice powder to roughen the surface,

and then dusted with a sticky powder.

These steps made the surface

receptive to inks and colors.

The whole, finished skin was then cut down

to the size of the pages needed for a particular book.

A big manuscript was assembled from

sheets almost as large as a single skin.

For smaller books, the skin was cut

into two or more pieces.

The parchment sheets were folded and nested,

to make gatherings, usually of sixteen or twenty pages.

The vibrant illuminations in a medieval manuscript

often overshadow the words on the page.

Yet the writing of the script was as important

as the painting of the images.

The tools of a scribe,

the person who copied the text onto the page,

were simple.

Pens, called quills,

were made from the feathers of a bird,

which were soaked in water,

dried, and hardened with heated sand.

The scribe carved the quill to a rough point,

cut a slit to draw ink down,

then trimmed the point to the proper width.

The shape of the quill point varied

with the style of the lettering being copied.

Scribes made ink from a variety of materials.

Gallnuts, growths found on oak trees,

were often used to create a dark, black ink.

Black ink was also made by dissolving

a common carbon substance.

The resulting ink was called lamp black.

Before the scribe began writing,

he ruled the parchment using a straightedge.

Medieval scribes and their patrons

prized a regular and elegant script.

If a scribe made an error,

he would scratch it out with a pen knife.

Because the page was made from parchment,

which was very resilient,

it could stand many erasures of this type.

An illuminator decorated the pages of a manuscript

using paint and precious metals.

He began only after a scribe

had finished copying the text.

The illuminator first sketched his design,

then added details such as the features of a figure,

or the interlacing of a decorated initial.

Thin sheets of precious metals,

like gold leaf, were always applied first.

The illuminator put down a base coat,

consisting of either a plaster-like substance called gesso,

or a gum, as shown here.

Once the gum base dried,

the moisture in the illuminator's breath was

enough to make the small piece of gold leaf

stick to the page.

Then, the illuminator brushed away the excess,

and polished the gold leaf.

After applying the gold leaf,

the illuminator painted his design.

Each color was made from a vegetable dye,

or a mineral substance, ground up and dissolved in liquid.

The illuminator applied the paler shades first,

then the darker tones.

Once the illuminator applied black outlines,

and delicate white highlights to the figures and vines,

the illumination was finished.

After the scribes and illuminators had finished

writing and decorating the parchment pages,

the manuscript was bound.

Groups of folded sheets of parchment,

called gatherings,

were sewn together with strong linen thread onto

flexible supports such as these narrow, leather thongs.

Next, the binder attached end bands,

which secured the top and bottom ends of the pages

in the spine of the book.

The binder then laced the leather thongs

along the spine through channels and tunnels,

which had been carved into wood boards.

These boards were the covers of the manuscript.

The thongs could be held in place

by wood pegs or iron nails.

The volume was then covered, usually with leather.

Without pressure from the covers to keep the leaves flat,

parchment expanded and contracted

with changes in temperature and humidity.

Pressure was applied by the addition of clasps or straps,

which held the book closed.

The binding of a manuscript could be decorated

with any one of a variety of materials.

A manuscript might be covered with leather,

stamped or tooled with gold,

or covered with silks or velvets.

The most elaborate bindings received sculpted

decoration made from precious metals.

The materials of the binding depended on

the wealth of the patron, the type of manuscript,

and its intended use.

(gentle guitar music)