Deciphering Secrets – Writing

The assignment for this week for Deciphering Secrets is all about writing.  For the assignment I cut a broad tip goose quill for a “heavy” hand and I cut a goose quill to a sharp tip (aka a crow quill) for a “light” hand.   I also used a metal Speedball commercial dip pen and a Pilot Parallel calligraphy pen for the exercise.  Both are broad nibs for “heavy” hands.

I wrote out the full section for the first entry in my bestiary, the Lyon de Mer in a simple Gothic hand using the broad goose quill pen and a commercial iron gall ink.   The writing angle is about 90%, and is indicated on the page.

The text is entitled The Lyon de Mer:

The Lyon de Mer is the King of the Sea and fierce protector of the Barony of Lyondemere.  Said to come from fabled Lyonesse, it is comprised of the fore parts of a lion and the back parts of a dolphin.  This fierce beast can be seen swimming in pacific waters off the coast of fair Caid combating all enemies of Crown and Kingdom.


Then I wrote the first line of the bestiary in a half-uncial hand using the Pilot Parallel pen.  The writing angle is much more shallow than the Gothic hand.  It’s about 45%


After I wrote a few letters with each of the pens and did a ductus for several of the letters.  In retrospect, I should have spaced them out a little further.


Here’s the full sheet of the exercise:


The crowquill pen is the lightest weight of the writing instruments I used, leaving all parts of the letter the same width.  The half-unical seems the heaviest of the pens (done with the Pilot Parallel pen), the shallow writing angle of the half uncial hand making more thick than thin lines (but it’s also the darkest ink.)  The broad cut goose quill appears heavier than the crow-quill but lighter than the half-uncial with the Pilot Parallel, but it’s also done with iron gall ink which will darken with time.


Deciphering Secrets – Ruling the lines

I started by examining several manuscripts to get a feel for what I wanted to do.

First stop was the Aberdeen Bestiary.

I started with this page and then looked at several others following.  The page shows triangular marginal pricking and double lines for the frame. The lines are fairly thick compared to the thinnest part of the calligraphy, possibly a plummet, but that’s just a guess.  The text is written just above the ruling line.  The beginning of the text starts mostly at the second line of the frame but sometimes goes over.  As does the ending text.  The illustrations sometimes fill the entire text space, but sometimes are smaller, creating smaller columns of text.  The lines appear to go under the illustrations, but they are heavily painted and it’s a little hard to tell for certain. The date of the Aberdeen Bestiary is 1200.

Next I looked at the Luttrell Psalter here  The ruling lines are very faint and I’m not entirely sure but there may be lines on both the top and bottom of the text (or it may be a shadow from the other side of the page where there is line filler.)  The frame appears to be double lined, but it is very faint.  There is a great deal of painting outside the text area, in the margins, which show evidence of being trimmed.  The pricking holes are not in evidence on the pages I looked at. The Luttrell Psalter dates between 1320 and 1340.

Next I looked at the Hunting Book of Gaston Phoebus.  The entire book is not online but there are postings of individual pages.  The first is here:  The text for the book is set in two columns and the frame is done in single lines. The text is written above the ruled lines.   Another page shows the same thing.  Neither is high enough resolution to show pricking holes.

Trying to find more bestiaries that are online I found this one, Manāfiʻ-i ḥayavān., from Iran dated between 1297-1300 (with later additions done in the 19th Century).  It is framed in red ink in double lines.  The text appears to have no ruling lines. Image is not high enough resolution to see pricking holes.

The last manuscript I looked at was the Jacobus de Voragine: Golden legend dating from around 1370.  The text is set in two columns within a single line frame.  There is no sign of pricking holes.

Because I want to do calligraphy on my vellum quire, I need to be careful about where and how many lines I can fit in my text space.  I measured the size of the bifolium  and then used the Golden Ratio/Golden Mean aka secret canon method to determine how much space the text should take up.


It was sadly much less than I expected, so I went back to the words I’ve written for the project and edited it down, so no section is more than 14 lines.  I decided that to mark the pages, I need to make a template.  Historically, it would probably be made out of vellum, but I don’t have a piece to spare, so I will use cardstock.  Likewise, some kind of awl (or knife) would be used to prick the holes.  My awls are too thick for this job, and my pen knife is also too thick, so I think I will try a push pin.

Making the template has used more modern tools than I would like, on how exactly this process was done.  I used a computer to generate a ruling sheet, and then a light box to transfer the pricking locations to a piece of cardstock.


After the template was made, I did a practice sheet using a lead point aka plummet that I cast a couple of years ago.  (The plummet is made of half lead, half pewter.  It should have been half lead, half tin, but pure tin turned out to be hard to get.  It’s pretty soft and leaves a nice grey line.)

Then I did the first sheet of the bifolium.  I had to be careful to remember which were my framing lines and which were text lines.


I still need to do the other sheet, both sides, but I wanted to get this turned in tonight.  I’ll edit it and add the other sheet as soon as I get it finished.


Added:  Because I want to do this as a coherent book, I only have one ruling pattern.  This is on actual vellum, done with a lead plummet.

Here’s the second page taped before I put the template over it.


And here are both pages both ruled together:


Looking forward to the next part!

Deciphering Secrets: Preparing the Quires

Deciphering Secrets – Preparing the Quires

Because I only have the one piece of vellum, I’m only making one quire.


The next step in the process is to fold the parchment into quires, but before I do that, I need to prepare the vellum for writing and then cut it to size.  However before I do either, I want to cut a couple of goose feathers for use as quills, one cut to a crowquill, the other to a broad nib for writing.


First, I’ll soak the quills in water for about 20 minutes to soften them.  They’ve been sitting in a jar for months and have air-cured.  Then I’ll trim off all the feathers, cut off the tip and clean out the barrels.  I made the cuts and the quills are working fine (though they generally work better on a slanted surface and not flat.)

I used a very fine sandpaper to smooth the hair side which was a little rough and to raise a slight nap on the flesh side, as it appeared too slick to write on.  I then pounced both sides with pounce, dusting it lightly on the parchment and then rubbing it gently with a scrap of linen cloth.  I’m not sure exactly what is in the pounce container.  (I inherited it with some old art supplies but pounce can be made from finely powdered cuttlefish bone, gum sandarac, chalk or similar substances.)  I also smoothed the hair side with a bone folder, but there is still a rough spot that is going to be very hard to calligraph over.

After that was done I cut the vellum down to size.  I was just going to eyeball it but realized the piece is not rectangular. So I trimmed it (and it’s still a little off.)


After I fold and cut the parchment it will be 8 pages, comprised of two bifolium which I believe is a binio,

Time to fold the quires!  No problem with the first fold.  The second fold was a little harder as the vellum folded was now thicker.  Made the folds with the bone folder.  Then I decided to trim the uneven edges with my Exacto knife.  It’s not easy cutting through several layers of vellum!

Next to cut the quires open. I’ll switch blades on the Exacto knife so it is totally sharp. And then I trimmed the pages again because they still aren’t even (and aren’t perfect after trimming).  That was a little nerve-wracking.

Next I put a hole in the spine to tacket my bifolum together.  The most common tacket (thong used to bind loose bifolium pages together) is a sliver of parchment which I’ve done.

Last I will mark the order of the pages.  I have the text written out, though I may still do some editing on it.  I do know the order of what I want on the pages and will use letters to mark each page.  I’ll put the signatures in a box like the Lutrell Psalter.

Here’s a few manuscripts and other sources I used for inspiration:

Luttrell Psalter:  Catchphrase in a box.

1325-1340, Contents: ff. 1r-12v: Calendar, with the feasts of the following English saints included: Edward (18 March); Augustine (26 May); Translation of Thomas of Canterbury (7 July); Wilfrid (12 October); Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln (17 November); Edmund

Thanks for reading!

Here’s a website showing the step by step process of rebounding a choir book from Florence. Part way down the image labeled “The manuscript before rebinding” clearly shows the quires.

Here’s another manuscript that looks a little distressed but shows quires:

The Aberdeen Bestiary lists quite a lot of information about the quires:

Deciphering Secrets / Parchment Project

I’m taking an online class about Medieval manuscripts and the first project is to create a simulated “parchment” after examining online samples.

Of course, I have actual samples of parchment in my art supplies, but in interests of participating with the rest of the class that is doing the project according to the rubric, here goes.

Referenced manuscripts:

1)  I have in mind to do a few pages from a bestiary as the final project, so my first stop is to look at several pages from the Aberdeen Bestiary housed at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Looking at several of the pages, there does not seem to be a dramatic difference in color from the hair side to the flesh side, though the flesh side does have many obvious vein lines.  The pages also show discoloration in the lower left and right hand corners, but I think that can be ascribed to turning the pages.

The University of Abeerdeen claims copyright but allows for personal use and research purposes.

2)  I’ve also looked at the Bedford Hours housed at the British Library, London, UK. The Bedford Hours do not show a lot of differentiation in color between the pages, nor a lot of obvious follicles or vein lines but a few.  There is discoloration on the edges, but again that might be from handling over the years.

Appears to be in the public domain due to the age of the work.  (The British Library states a copyright term of 70 years after the death of the author/creator.)

3)  Next I looked at the “Golf Book”, an amazing work by the Flemish Master Simon Bening.  However the book is so lavishly decorated it’s hard to see the underlying parchment.  There are a few discolorations in less decorated sections.  Also housed in the British Library.

Copyright as above.

4)  Last I went to look at the famous Book of Kells housed at Trinity University, Dublin, Ireland. The Book of Kells is the oldest of the manuscripts I’ve viewed and has the most dramatic color differences from flesh side to hair side with more visible follicles showing and some veining.  It is discolored due to its age and has several visible repairs.

Copyright 2012 The Board of Trinity College Dublin. Images are available for single-use academic application only. Publication, transmission or display is prohibited without formal written approval of Trinity College Library, Dublin.
5)  Last I looked at some parchment that I have in hand.  One shows a pretty dramatic change in color from the flesh side to the hair side, the hair side being more yellow. The other is less dramatic, but the hair side is more yellow than the hair side.

The piece I would use for the actual project is cut from a half hide and is slightly more yellow on the hair side.  Both sides have a blemish where the parchment looks a little thin but I’m excited to put this piece to use.

For the simulated “parchment” project I am using 100 lb vellum surface Bristol Board.  To begin the transformation, I am using tea to color the “hair” side.  My first thought was to use a brush, but because I don’t want the paper to get too wet I used a sponge instead.

There doesn’t seem to be a big difference in the before and after, but I will let it dry overnight and look at it in the morning. The paper is curling on the edges.

I decided that I really didn’t like the tea dye, so I started over with a new piece of Bristol board using dilute walnut ink instead.


Then after taping the paper to my work surface, due to curling, I used dilute iron gall ink and a small stenciling brush, to add “hair follicles”.


For the flesh side, using a small brush, size 3/0 and dilute walnut ink, I added capillary/vein lines.


I hope the photos are sufficient to convey what I was doing.  The light isn’t very good in that part of my residence.

Finishing a scroll

You’ve just finished a scroll and now it’s time to sit back with a satisfied smile and an appropriate drink.  But wait, are you really finished?  Here’s some things to look for before you turn in your scroll:

  1. Proofread the text.

It’s best to do the calligraphy and proofread the text before you do the painting on a scroll, but just in case, proofread it again.  Make sure the name of the recipient and the Crown are correct.  Also make sure you have the correct award and award date.  If you find a mistake, some can be easily fixed.  Other mistakes may be harder, but there is almost always a way to make a correction.  If you can’t figure one out, consult other scribes for suggestions.

  1. Is everything painted?

It’s easy to miss painting a corner or a small bug or single flower.  Look over the scroll to make sure that everything is painted.  Also, check to make sure that everything that needs embellishment is done.  In a complex piece it’s very easy to miss a detail.

  1. Is everything outlined that needs it?

Not all styles of illumination require that all things be outlined, but a number of them do.  Go back and look at your inspiration piece and see where and what kind of outlines are needed.  Many things are outlined in black using a crow quill or a brush.  Some things are outlined in the same shade as the motif (or sometimes a darker tone of the main color of the motif).

  1. Are there signature lines?

It’s generally a lot easier for monarchs to sign scrolls when they know exactly where to sign, so at minimum leave pencil lines for them to sign on.  I think a scroll looks more finished when the signature lines are inked in rather than penciled (unless you plan to erase the pencil line afterward).  It’s also a nice touch to label the signature lines (usually underneath) with Rex/Regina, King/Queen or something similar.

  1. Is there seal space?

Please make sure to leave enough space for the seals.  It’s ok to have a seal cover part of the design, but the seals generally stick better if the area is not completely painted over.  Please mark the center of where you want the seal to go.  An X is fine, as is leaving a crown for the Kingdom seal and crossed trumpets for the Herald’s seal, or the initials KS and HS, or something.  Please don’t leave the entire penciled circle for the seals, as the seals often don’t spread enough to cover all the pencil line.

  1. Sign the scroll

At the minimum sign your name on the scroll in pencil, on the back near the top of the scroll. You can also add your email address, and any information about the scroll you want the recipient to have such as materials especially if you used any toxic pigments, such as white lead, manuscripts that served as inspiration, etc.  You may also want to add a signature or makers mark to the front, but make sure those are small and discreet.

  1. Take a picture.

Take a picture of your scroll for your records.  While you are at it, gather your layout, calligraphy practice sheets, exemplar images, and other bits and bobs and make a folder.  If you do a similar style, it will come in handy.

  1. Make some notes.

Take a good look at your scroll and pick out things that went well, and things that you would do different next time.  Add those notes to your folder.

To Glove or Not to Glove

I’ve never been a big fan of wearing a glove while doing calligraphy or painting on a scroll, but I’m also not a fan of getting hand oils on my scroll paper either. Depending on the type of paper you are using hand oils can cause the ink or paint you are using to bead up on the surface of the paper.  It seems to be more of a problem with pergamenata and real vellum and less so with bristol board and hot press water color paper.

If you aren’t using a glove, remember to wash your hands often while working on a scroll from layout to finishing (but make sure your hands are really truly completely dry before working on your scroll.)  You can also put a scrap piece of paper under your hand to keep the paper clean.

If you do get hand oils on pergamenta or vellum, you can use pounce as a fix.  Pounce can be one of a number of things (or combinations of things), but it’s some kind of powder that will absorb the hand oils.  Some things used for pounce are calcium carbonate, which you can get from cuttlefish bone, pumice powder and gum sandarac. You can buy pounce commercially or buy the ingredients and make your own by putting it in a linen bag.  The pounce is dusted on to the paper and then lightly wiped in to the paper. Then brush the remainer off into a trash can.

On pergamenta paper you can also go over the entire surface with a white eraser, and that will also pick up some hand oils.

Or you can try wearing a glove.  I generally only wear one on my painting/calligraphy hand and try to keep my off hand off the paper or only on the edges.


You can buy gloves in a variety of places, Amazon has them as well as many drugs stores, but they aren’t cheap.  Or you can look for stretchy gloves in dollar shows and use them.  The third glove above is actually a toe sock I found in a dollar store.  I tend to cut all the fingers off and use them that way, some people prefer to cut only certain fingers off the gloves.  Experiment to find out what suits you best.