Scribes and Pigments

Medieval scribes could be members of monastic orders, professionals systematically copying texts in commercial workshops, or students creating copies of borrowed works for their own use. While their circumstances might vary, they all used similar tools. Typically, sloped writing desks were preferred, as they held the parchment or paper at a desirable angle. In his right hand, the scribe would hold a quill with a carefully shaped and sharpened point, like the one shown here. The most highly prized quills were made from feathers from the left wing of a goose, as their curves made them easy for a right-handed scribe to cut and use. In the left hand, the scribe typically would hold a penknife with which to sharpen the quill when it frayed and to scrape the inevitable mistakes from the surface of the parchment. We often find rough spots on manuscript leaves that indicate where the scribe used the penknife to remove erroneous marks.

Takamiya MS 86: De officio militari: and other works

Takamiya MS 86.Nicholas Upton, De officio militari. England, c. 1500.

The appearance of multiple inkpots in medieval images of scribes at work suggests that scribes sometimes had several colors at their disposal, so as to facilitate the creation of beautiful work such as the colorful opening of Takamiya MS 86. The most common ink color was black, which early in the Middle Ages was made from carbon scraped from singed objects then mixed with gum and water. Later, black ink was made from oak galls, the protuberances found on oak trees where a gall wasp has laid its eggs. Other pigmented inks were made from various organic and inorganic compounds, such as the red lead from which red pigment was concocted or crushed lapis lazuli, which yielded the particularly rich shade of blue sometimes found in deluxe manuscripts.

Takamiya MS 117: Scribal sample sheet

Takamiya MS 117. Scribal sample sheet. Germany, c. 1475-1500.

While monastic scribes were predominant during the earlier Middle Ages, the greater demand for books in the later medieval period led to a sharp increase in the number of secular, professional scribes. Takamiya MS 117 is a rare example of a scribe’s display piece, which he would prepare as a kind of portfolio in order to demonstrate his mastery of a variety of scripts.

Scribes and Pigments