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Early Bible Making

Burgundian scribe (portrait of Jean Miélot, from Miracles de Notre Dame), 15th century. The picture is greatly detailed in its rendering of the room's furnishings, the writer's materials, equipment, and activity. (Wikipedia, s.v. "Scriptorium")


Illuminated Manuscripts


Making of a Medieval Book (Getty Museum)


Papyrus   Papyrus    Papyrus

Parchment   Parchment   Parchment

Parchment Making, History & Technology


Scriptorium   Scriptorium   Scriptorium


Writing Implements


    Most people have heard that up until the time of Johannes Guttenberg in 1455, Bibles (and all other books) were produced by hand, generally by the members of monasteries and other religious foundations.  While writing out a bible is in itself a prodigious feat of handwriting, it should be recognized that the monks did much more in order to bring their treasured books into existence.

    If one were to decide to copy a Bible hand today, the first step would be a trip to a well stocked office supply store.  There one could buy paper already ruled..  Or one could by a better grade of paper, as well as a T-square and a  graphite pencil for applying lines.  There would be pens and ink in a variety of colors—perhaps even a pen designed for calligraphy.  Though most of them would look rather utilitarian, various kinds of binders would be available.  A drafting board and a good overhead light would be a great help.

    The monks of the medieval scriptorium had to make all of these things themselves, and make them from natural materials.

    The very earliest Christian writings were generally on papyrus, although parchment and vellum were definitely known to the ancient world. Papyrus was made from the pith of the Egyptian bulrush plant, which grows very tall and was available throughout the Mediterranean region during the Pax Romana. After soaking, the pith was laid flat, with parallel strips overlapping each other.  A second overlapping set of strips was placed over them at right angles to the first, and the entirety was gently pounded so as to produce one flat sticky mass, that was dried under pressure between flat stones.  After drying, the papyrus was buffed with a smooth round stone or shell.  Writing on the papyrii was accomplished with a reed brush or a hollow reed filled with ink somewhat like a fountain pen.  The the strips on the recto side of the papyrus sheet run horizontally, and eliminate the need for marking ruled lines—the strips on the verso side run up and down, but this side is not used if the sheets are made into a scroll.

    At first the individual sheets of papyrus were sewn into a scroll, but this had the disadvantage of bending the the fragile sheets every time the scroll was rolled or unrolled, leading to its early destruction.  Later papyrii were prepared in the codex or book form developed by the Romans during the first century.  But, even in Codex form, papyrii did not generally survive more than a couple of centuries.  This fragility, coupled with the economic difficulty of obtaining materials from Egypt after the Barbarian invasions disrupted Mediterranean trade, caused copyists to turn to the more expensive vellum and parchment.

    Papyrus, however, had a lasting impact on our language.  The Greek papyros (πάπυρος) has an obvious connection to our modern word "paper."  It was also known by the Greep word byblos (βύβλος), from which we have have words like bibliography and Bible. (Wikipedia, s.v. "papyrus")  What we know today as "paper" was invented by the Chinese, more or less around the time of Christ.  It was not received in the West until roughly the thirteenth century, arriving through the Middle East after the Crusades.  Even with the advent of printing, paper was considered inferior to vellum, and was used only as an economic expedient.

    Vellum and parchment are made from animal skins.  Vellum requires the skin of a young calf, perhaps, even unborn.  All other writing material made from skins is termed parchment.  (Jewish Torah and other writing scrolls are made only from kosher animals.)  Animal size may be a consideration if large sheets of parchment are required.  We have a thirteenth century description of the two part process in Conradus de Mure, De animalium naturam:

The flayed skin from the calf is placed into water. Lime is mixed in which bites into all the raw skin. This should fully clean it and remove the hairs. The circular frame on which the skin is stretched is made ready. Let it be placed in the sun so that the fluid is removed. Approach with the knife which tears away the flesh and hairs. It quickly renders the sheet thin.

To prepare parchment for books:  First cut into rectangular sheets. Assemble the sheets over each other and join together. Next comes pumice which removes what is on the surface. Chalk comes next, so that the work will not run. Then puncture (each sheet) with dots (using an awl or needle) following with a line made by the lead. (Interpreting Ancient Manuscripts Web)

The first part allows the skin to be cleaned and rendered free of grease and hair.  The parchment sheets were usually cut twice as wide as the desired finished size, so that they could be folded over into a folio of four pages, thereby strengthening the book eventually bound.  A number of sheets were sewn together down the middle, making a quire.  Treatment with pumice (called "pouncing") provided a uniformly smooth surface.  Application of thin pastes called "stanchgrains," made of varying quantities of lime, quicklime, flour, egg white and milk, hardened and whitened the surface.  Chalk, lime, or another calcium product was finally applied to enable the writing surface to take ink without running. (Meliora di Cursi, History and Technology of Parchment Making)

    The parchment must be ruled so that the letters will form a straight line.  The ruling may be made in the form of a (hopefully) shallow incision with a sharp instrument, or may be marked on the surface with lead.  Some manuscripts show signs of tearing at the incisions, so the lead makings were a better choice.  One might even hope that the lead lines would wear off over time.  The copyist would have to leave some margin so that the quires could be sewn together in the completed manuscript.  Blank pages had to be left at each end of the book, to facilitate binding into a cover (more on this below).

    When you consider that an animal only has one skin, it is clear that the production of a Bible would require whole flocks of animals.  The Monastic Rule forbids monks to "eat the flesh of quadrupeds" unless they are sick (RSB-36) (RSB-39).    Meat might have been served to guests, particularly to monastic benefactors and visiting bishops or legates. But observance of the Rule ensured that the monastery would have very little of the animal skins necessary to produce parchment or vellum.  As a result, it was not at all uncommon for someone who wanted the have the monks produce a book for him to supply his own parchment.  Benefactors might also furnish parchment with the expectation that the books produced would serve holy purposes and, thus, bring God's grace upon them.

    Saint Benedict urged his monks to "Ora et labora—to pray and work."  The monks spend many hours at prayer—the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Divine Office, private prayer and spiritual reading.  Even at work, conversation is held to a necessary minimum to allow the prayer to continue mentally.  The transcribing of Sacred Scripture is perhaps the highest form of work that is also prayer, for the monk not only reads the word of God, but allows His word to direct his hand.  The monk is ever on guard to minimize the human frailty that might allow errors to enter his work—heat in the summer, coldness in the winter, the ever present numbness of the fingers, and the periodic interruption for prayer in common.

    Early copyists onto parchment used a reed pen or metal stylus.  One can sometimes see the stylus marks on parchments where the letters have faded over the centuries. Various materials were used as ink, derived from plants, minerals, burnt materials, and berries  The quill came into use around 700 AD.

By 400 A.D. a stable form of ink developed, a composite of iron-salts, nutgalls and gum, the basic formula, which was to remain in use for centuries. Its color when first applied to paper was a bluish-black, rapidly turning into a darker black and then over the years fading to the familiar dull brown color commonly seen in old documents....

The writing instrument that dominated for the longest period in history (over one-thousand years) was the quill pen. Introduced around 700 A.D., the quill is a pen made from a bird feather. The strongest quills were those taken from living birds in the spring from the five outer left wing feathers. The left wing was favored because the feathers curved outward and away when used by a right-handed writer. Goose feathers were most common; swan feathers were of a premium grade being scarcer and more expensive. For making fine lines, crow feathers were the best, and then came the feathers of the eagle, owl, hawk and turkey.

Quill pens lasted for only a week before it was necessary to replace them. There were other disadvantages associated with their use, including a lengthy preparation time. The early European writing parchments made from animal skins, required much scraping and cleaning. A lead and a ruler made margins. To sharpen the quill, the writer needed a special knife (origins of the term "pen-knife".) Beneath the writer's high-top desk was a coal stove, used to dry the ink as fast as possible.   (A Brief History of Writing Instruments)

    Over the centuries, the copyists devised methods for making their text more readable while yet increasing the number of words on a piece of precious parchment.  The earliest extant manuscripts (MSS) are difficult to read even if you know what they say.  Spaces, punctuation, and lowercase letters—to say nothing of crisp clear type faces—all contributed to the MSS intelligibility as well as enhancing its appearance.  The division of the Bible into chapter and verse, essential to citation, also took place during the Middle Ages.

Compare this With this
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was made nothing that has been made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness; and the darkness grasped it not. There was a man, one sent from God, whose name was John. This man came as a witness, to bear witness concerning the light, that all might believe through him. He was not himself the light, but was to bear witness to the light. It was the true light that enlightens every man who comes into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world knew Him not. He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. But to as many as received Him, He gave the power of becoming sons of God; to those who believe in His name: who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, not of the will of man, but of God. And The Word Was Made Flesh, And Dwelt Among Us. And we saw His glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
    The job is nowhere complete, even when every last letter has been written.   Until the thirteenth century rise of the universities, when less expensive texts came into demand, many manuscripts were illuminated with colorful capital letters and illustrations.  The most costly illuminations (purists say the "only illuminations") are done with gold and silver.  Yet a full variety of colors were employed by medieval artists, some of them surviving in surprisingly good condition centuries later.

     Like everything else, ink and applicators had to be fashioned from available materials:  Gold, silver, and tin leaf, or powdered and mixed with gum arabic or egg.  Lamp black or charcoal, white lead or chalk, colors based on berry, plant, mineral, or even insect colors.

   In general, the manuscript was completely lettered and proofread before being turned over to the artists for embellishment.  But it is clear that the copyists had to work closely with the artists to provide adequate room in the right places.

... et crucifixérunt eum. Et erat títulus causæ ejus inscríptus: Rex Judeórum.  Et cum eo crucifigunt duos latrónes: unum a dextris, et áliam a sinistris ejus.  Et impléta est scriptúra, quæ dicit:  Et cum iníquis reputátus est.  Et prætereúntas blasphemábant eum, movéntes cápita sua, et dicéntes:  Vah, qui déstruis templum Dei, et in tribus diébus reædíficas: salvum fac teípsum, descéndens de cruce.  Similíter et summi sacerdótes.... ... and they crucified him.  And the inscription of his cause was written: The King of the Jews.  And with him they crucified two thieves: the one on his right hand, and the other on his left.  And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith: And with the wicked he was reputed.  And they that passed by blasphemed him, wagging their heads and saying: Vah, thou that destroyest the temple of God and in three days buildest it up again:  save thyself, coming down from the cross.  In like manner also the chief priests....
Page from The Book of Kells c. 800 AD, Abbey of Kells, County Meath, Ireland
The text runs from Mark xv: 25 to 31

   The illumination above, from the Irish Book of Kells, was produced in the "Insular style" of the British and Irish between about 600 and 1200 AD.  It is more elaborate than most, with many medieval manuscript illuminators confining themselves to embellishing capitals and placing artwork around the borders of most pages.

   The earlier, seventh century Cathach of Saint Columba, a Psalter (Book of Psalms) shown to the right is much plainer, with only the initial letter of each Psalm being embellished:

Once copied and illuminated, the Bible had to be bound—again from the natural materials at hand, unless a donor could be found to supply the costly materials which decorated the best manuscripts.  The parchment folios (four pages derived from folding a double wide sheet of parchment) had already been sewn together in quires.  The quires, in turn, would now be sewn together in the correct order.  The earliest codex covers were nothing more than a box or bag into which the sewn manuscript was placed for protection—it may have been decorated or not.  Later, book covers as we know them today began to be fabricated so that the sewn manuscript could be glued inside of them.

Paris, National Museum, Eleventh Century    The most obvious material for book covers is wood—two boards held together, perhaps by a leather hinge glued or nailed to one end of each board.  The boards would be just a bit larger than the pages of the manuscript, and the hinge would be sized to include the thickness of the manuscript.  Pages that had been purposefully left blank at the beginning and end of the sewn manuscript could then be glued into the cover.  These "end pages" might, themselves, be embellished on their visible sides facing the manuscript.

    A fancier cover might have leather or fabric stretched over the wooden parts.  Leather thick enough might be embossed with religious symbols or bas reliefs.  The fanciest covers might be adorned with precious gems.  Embossed metallic cover plates might even be made from silver or gold.  The cover at left is an eleventh century specimen from the national museum at Paris; a prayer book covered in gold, jewels and enamels. (Chamber's Book of Days—a website, not the name of the book pictured.)  The illustration also shows a feature common in medieval book binding, a pair of clasps intended to hold the book firmly closed when not in use.  Vellum tends to absorb the moisture from warm air if the leaves of the book are not pressed together tightly.  The clasps themselves can be rather handsome works of art, particularly when not overshadowed by a very elaborate cover.

    Approximately three quarters of the Church's history went by before the invention of printing—printing with moveable type, itself a laborious process by modern standards.  That the Bible exists at all is a tribute to the army of Catholic religious who made the ink and writing implements from natural materials;   made vellum or parchment by soaking, liming, scraping, drying, and stretching animal skins into vellum sheets;  and then copied an earlier copy, letter by letter, for hours on end. Then began the illumination. Then the binding, also with handmade materials  The 180 Bibles produced by Johannes Guttenberg in 1455, printed, and then hand illuminated, took a year to produce—roughly the time a monastery scriptorium took to produce a single copy.  By modern standards, that was an awfully small press run. Not many people were able to read the Bible because there weren't many Bibles—and producing them was an extremely expensive enterprise until modern times.


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