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Manuscript Studies
Medieval and Early Modern

IV.iii. Paleography: Writing Implements

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Writing materials and implements:

Papyrus: down to fifth century. But sheets of papyrus tend to break apart easily, so they had to be stored in rolls. No "random access" such as is possible with codex (indeed, rolls have all the inconveniences and more of modern microfilm).

Parchment: "Vellum" = fine parchment; technically, vellum is the skin of a calf (notice similarity to "veal"), tending to be very white, flexible, etc., while parchment was made from the skin of an adult sheep or cow; however, especially in late medieval manuscripts, the distinction is hard to maintain, and many cataloguers are abandoning the attempt, using the terms more or less interchangeably. Leather was used for writing as early as 1000 B.C., but parchment per se appears only around 100 A.D. Not until fifth century, though, does parchment outstrip papyrus, largely because the early Christians preferred parchment codices to papyrus rolls, and by fifth century the Christians were dominant. The invention of the codex has been described as a social and intellectual revolution rivalling the invention of printing (see Roberts and Skeat for the standard history).

Paper: invented in China in first century A.D.; first Latin documents on paper in tenth century. Spain was known for its paper mills in thirteenth century (and watermarking is a late thirteenth-century invention: see Briquet's catalogue, supplemented--in some cases superseded--by Piccard). By mid-fifteenth century paper is becoming dominant, especially for "ephemera" such as vernacular literature.

To correct errors, one uses a chisel if inscribing in stone, a stylus ("dry point") if writing on a wax tablet (school exercises, first drafts), a knife if one is writing on parchment (to scrape off the top layer of the skin and expose a fresh surface beneath it).

Brush (used in Middle Ages to elaborate initial letters)

Reed (still used by Isidore of Seville in seventh century, though he also mentions quills [Etymologies VI.14])

Quill ("penne" = "feather") usually goose

Ink: charcoal-based at the time of Christ, but tended to flake and rub off when dry. In first century A.D., development of "iron gall" inks made of "copperas" and "gall" (a ratio of 1 to 3 makes a very black ink; less gall gives varying shades of brown; it also tends to go brown with age)





Ruler (for pricking): Ruling was to guide the scribe in writing in straight lines. Early ruling was done in drypoint (stylus) to keep it relatively inconspicuous. From about the eleventh century it is done in lead, and from the thirteenth century it is often done in ink. Later, with paper (as it becomes relatively transparent), sheets of ruled lines can be placed behind the sheet upon which the writing can be done, so ruling in fine manuscripts disappears (noticed today the difference between "good" writing paper and ruled looseleaf).

Awl (for pricking): the scribe, in the process of preparing parchment, needs to draw drypoint or pencil lines to use as the baselines for writing; the awl is used to punch a series of holes along opposite edges of a stack of parchment leaves, and then the pencil lines are drawn with a ruler aligned according to the pricked holes. Pricking holes are often, but not always, cut away with the edge of the leaves in the binding process.

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[ Course Notes: Introduction ] | [ I. Towards a definition of "manuscript studies" ] | [ I.ii. The four branches of bibliographical study ] | [ I.iii. Topics in the social history of texts ] | [ II. Diplomatics ] | [ III. Codicology ] | [ III.ii. Decoration and Illumination ] | [ IV. Paleography ] | [ IV.ii. Historical Notes ] | [ IV.iii. Writing Implements ] | [ IV.iv. Letter Formation ] | [ IV.v. Special Characters in English Manuscripts ] | [ IV.vi. Scribal Abbreviations ] | [ IV.vii. Punctuation ] | [ IV.viii. Paleographical sample: William Herebert, OFM (early fourteenth-century England) ] | [ Herebert sample, with transcription ] | [ Herebert sample: enlargement of full page reproduced at high resolution ] | [ V. Textual analysis (James E. Thorpe) ] | [ V.ii. Scribal error ] | [ V.iii. Kinds of edition ] | [ V.iv. Examples of over emendation on insufficient grounds ] | [ VI. Linguistic competence (an example): An Outline History of the English Language ] | [ VII. Libraries and archives: ] | [ VII.ii. British Library Manuscript Collections ] | [ VII.iii. Bodleian Library Manuscript Collections ]

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© 1998 Stephen R. Reimer
English; University of Alberta; Edmonton, Canada
All rights reserved.
Created: 2 Dec. 1998; Last revised: 2 Dec. 1998

email: Stephen.Reimer@UAlberta.Ca
URL: http://www.ualberta.ca/~sreimer/ms-course.htm