Primary Source Literacy at USC Libraries & Beyond

Manuscript Production

A manuscript requires three basic elements: a surface on which to write, a stylus with which to write, and ink to transmit the action of the stylus to the surface. Production of manuscripts took place in religious centers throughout the western world, such as a monastery or convent. Within each center, different individuals took on specific tasks to produce a single manuscript, though some crafts may have been “outsourced”, to make parchment, for example.

Most of the early manuscripts in Special Collections are written on vellum or parchment, which is durable and can last for a millennium or more. Parchment and vellum are created from the skins of domesticated animals such as sheep (diplomas are referred to as “sheepskin” because they are often printed on parchment). Vellum is another word for parchment, and is often created from calfskin. To create parchment, the skin is soaked in lime water to loosen hair, which is then scraped away. The skin is then soaked in fresh water to remove the lime and stretched on a frame to dry. Over time, the parchment maker would scrape and stretch the skin until the desired thickness was achieved.

To prepare parchment for writing, it needs to be roughened with a pumice stone and then dusted with a powder so that inks will adhere to the surface. Finally, the parchment is cut down from its original shape into folded sheets, and then stacked together for the planned book.

The stylus (or pen) used to write on parchment was created from the feathers of birds, and called quills. The feather was soaked in water, dried, and then hardened with heated sand. The scribe then finished off the tip of the quill to create a point with which to write.

Scribes made their inks from many different materials and quite a number of medieval ink recipes exist. One type is a carbon ink using a carbon base, like charcoal or lamp-black (i.e. the soot left over from burning oil lamps), mixed with gum. The second type is a metal-gall ink, which is made by mixing a solution of tannic acids with ferrous sulphate. It was also mixed with gum for thickening.

Watch this video to learn how metal-gal ink is made:
Before writing on the parchment, scribes used a straight edge to draw lines on the parchment, which assisted the scribe in forming letters in a straight line. Errors could be corrected by scraping the ink from the parchment with a small knife called a “pen knife”.

Illuminators embellished manuscripts, after scribes finished writing the text on the parchment, using paint and precious metals such as gold and silver. Once finished, a binder sewed the folded sheets of parchment together, attached wooden boards to the front and back parchment sheets, and then covered the spine with leather. Attaching clasps at the fore-edge of the book helped keep the book closed, as changes in temperature and humidity caused the parchment to swell.


Please watch the video from the J. Paul Getty Museum on Making Manuscripts to learn more about how manuscripts were created.

Header Image: A monk working in a scriptorium. Engraving after a 15th-century manuscript.

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