One Sheet Down, Eighteen To Go

My first finished full page.  Writing is a lot harder than I first thought it would be.  Even with the sizing, the fibres in my paper tend to catch on the nib of my pen and there are several black blotches where the ink filled in the space behind the fibre.  Still, as slow as the going is, I am enjoying it very much.

In manuscript studies, we use stemma to illustrate the “lineage” of a text.  Starting from the authorial original, new variants to the text are created by changes made (intentionally or not) by scribes.  There are many different ways scribes alter the text, but one of them is errors of omission where a scribe accidentally leaves out a word or a line.  Having worked on my manuscript for just a bit, I can completely understand how manuscripts get “corrupted” in this way.  I’ve already made a couple of “homeoarchy” errors, but I’m getting more careful as I go and I hope I won’t make many more.

For those interested in the palaeography of my manuscript, the basis for my script is the British Library Additional MS 59678, better know as the Winchester Malory.

There are a few reasons for this: first, it is my very favourite manuscript hand.  I’m not sure why.  There are many more elaborate and formal, or easier to copy, but the Winchester scribes’ hands are, to me, the perfect choice for this project.  Second, there are a great number of excellent digital images of the Winchester available from both The British Library’s Treasures In Full page and from the Malory Project.  This gave me a complete spectrum of letter forms (something difficult to find in the scattered few pages of other potential models available to me through Google) with which to work and the images were high-enough resolution that I could print them out and carry them around with me as needed.


The Ruling Problem: Solved

In the interest of time, I’ve settled on a very un-medieval method for getting my lines straight: I’m using a lightbox and a sheet of clear plastic that I ruled with a permanent marker.

It is working wonders!  My lines are beautifully straight and leave no marks.

ALL The Paper

Over the past two weeks I’ve managed to pull almost 50 sheets of paper, most of which have been affixed with red squares, but some of which I’ve left blank or completely painted red for the inside covers.  One very large sheet has a very secret design worked into it for the cover, but you’ll have to wait to see that. :)

I’ll be missing the last class, in which my classmates will sew their bindings.  I’ll be visiting my Canadian BFF in Ottawa, and will be binding my book in early August.  I’ve found I need the extra month because writing this is very slow going.

More Roadblocks: Leaf-laying and Ruling

I took one of my first pages and experimented with gold leaf and ruling.

On one of my initial mock-up pages I tried out ruling with a stylus — this is a method by which you “prick” a manuscript with a knife or sharp point and then “rule” it with a stylus to create the impression of lines that can be written along.  Apparently I am fundamentally unable to to do this without completely messing it up.  My initial mock-up ruled lines were all over the place and in order to make them visible I had to push them so hard that they were visible on the other side.  Normally this wouldn’t be so bad, except my lines don’t need to be the same on each side and that would mess me up later.

My next experiment was with pencil ruling, but this provided some obvious problems: first, the lines were far too dark and obvious for my liking, and second, erasing the lines at all completely ruined the paper by pulling the fibres and destroying the texture.

So, neither of those are a go, and I guess I will have to devise a new method or practice more with the stylus.

The gold leaf turned out much better, but there were a couple of problems with THAT, too.

For one thing, the leaf lays on the page with a much higher profile than I expected.  It’s quite prominent, which is not what I expected considering the medieval pages I’ve seen with leaf on them.  The leaf also stuck to the opposite page when I folded it, which will cause problems for me later.

So, although it looks gorgeous on the red squares and will be awesome when finished, right now it is causing me some headaches.


Paper Success!

My red squares turned out beautifully, and I am thrilled to bits with the overall weight and quality of my paper.


There are a few things I do in my spare time that bring me real, relaxing joy: driving my MINI Cooper S on twisty Texas Hill Country roads; tanking as a paladin in World of Warcraft; and, now, papermaking.  The feel of pulpy water on my hands and the precision it requires to pull an even sheet of paper on the mould and deckle creates an experience that focuses my mind and allows me to focus on other things than my worries for a while.

But papermaking is tricky when you’re first starting out, and it takes me two or three pulls with the mould and deckle to get one good sheet.  First, you have to be very careful to come up out of the water straight so that you get an even sheet.  Then there’s a little shake you have to do in the second the water is draining through the screen to make sure you even the pulp out.  The last step — couching, or laying the pulp on felt sheets — also requires precision and a bit of luck.  It’s very easy to ruin a sheet by not flipping the mould quickly enough or not pressing it hard enough onto the felt to transfer the pulp.  In these respects, papermaking hasn’t changed much from the way they did it in the middle ages.

The press, however, has seen a bit of an improvement since the 15th century:

Luckily for me, enrolling in a class at the SW School of Art and Craft gives me access to the studios whenever I need it.  After one night of paper pulling for the manuscript project, I have a feeling I’m going to need it.  Thursday evening was my first chance to make my paper and I was only able to make two or three test sheets since it took me quite a while to meticulously prepare the clear plastic guide sheets to mark out my writing area.  Since I plan to write on my pages with ink and pen, I’m using pre-sized 100% cotton pulp on a 14” x 8.5” mould and deckle to produce quires of 3 sheets or 6 pages that are 7” x 8.5” when folded in half.  The writing area will be 5” x 6” with 1” x 1” gold leaf Lombardic capitals on a bright red square beginning each page.

At least, that’s the idea.

My red is a custom mixture of carmine and red iron oxide, and should produce a blood red when it dries.  I mixed the final color in a condiment bottle by using highly concentrated pulp mixed with pigment and normal pulpy water.  Thursday my method for putting on the squares was to couch the sheet and lay a thick plastic sheet with rulings to mark out the writing area and exact position of the red squares.  The squares were cut out of the plastic so that I could “paint” the red pulp onto the white pulp, flip the sheet, re-lay the plastic and paint two squares on the other side.

I’m not sure how it will work out.  The red seemed to bleed through the white page, and I’m afraid the dried pages will be ruined.  I’ll have to see next week when the pages come out of the dryer.

Cutting Quills: Harder Than It Looks

Especially when you aren’t using real feathers.  For one thing, these fake ones I’m using are very difficult to cut fine enough for my liking.  Typically I use the finest point ballpoint pens available to man, because my handwriting is famously miniscule.  One professor at UTSA resorted to getting a magnifying glass out whenever I brought him things to read, and it wasn’t entirely in jest.  Trying to cut these fake feathers is both scary (I’m using a thick exacto knife blade) and… I can’t think of a word other than icky.  The feeling of trying to scrape down this plastic or whatever it is is like running your nails over a chalkboard.  Needless to say, I’m not exactly keen to spend a lot of time doing this.  I hope real feathers have a different texture and are easier to cut.

I believe I am going to write these attempts off and use a modern calligraphy pen for this project.  I hope some day to get REAL feathers, and try again, but for now I think I have to admit defeat.

Tools of the Trade

More likely than not, future manuscripts will be produced with more authentic materials.  The last-minuteness of this project has affected my ability to lay hands on real goose feathers, for example, and precluded the creation of my own inks (using this recipe for iron-gall ink: Monastic Ink: Linking Chemistry and History).  Still, I’m working with the most authentic resources I can as supplied by the local and wonderful Asel Art.

Here, then, are my tools of the trade for this project:

When I was an undergraduate, my mentor was Dr. Mark Allen at UTSA.  He hosted weekly one-hour sessions for a few friends and I with topics that centered on the medieval, but included things like the Pre-Raphaelites and creating modern copies of manuscripts.  This book — Edward Johnston’s Writing, Illuminating & Lettering — was originally shown to me in one of these sessions and introduced to me as something that previous students of Dr. Allen had made use of in their experiments with quill-making.  Naturally, when I decided to make my own manuscript this was the first tool I sought out.  It is an invaluable resource to anyone looking for a guide to producing hand-lettered, illuminated works.

In the first meeting of my class at the Southwest School of Art, we were asked to think about what type of book we wanted to make and how big.  We were then given sheets of blank paper and allowed to make mock-ups of our books-to-be, which you can see in this picture.  After deciding that I wanted to illuminate my book, I went out and found the necessaries for laying gold leaf: the leaf itself, pounce, the red base coat and adhesive, and fine brushes for painting on the glue and laying the leaf.

At this point, with five weeks to go and a full-time job taking up most of my days, I decided to give in and buy some ink.  I was scrupulous in my choice and bought something as close to natural as I could.  The feathers I bought in an attempt to make quills were, however, very far from natural.  They were foul, synthetic things, but as it turns out it is really hard to get real goose feathers in South Texas.  Imagine that.  In the end, I will probably use a modern calligraphy pen.

Next time I hope to use more “authentic” materials, but for a first attempt I think these will work out nicely.

A Promise To Myself

When I set out to make this manuscript, I laid out some ground rules for myself.

Rule Number One is to accept that this will not be perfect and forgive it its flaws.  Try to love it even if your lines are uneven, and remember that even Adam Pynkhurst, “thorowe… necligence and rape,” messed up sometimes.

And remember this picture every time you pick up your mould and deckle or pen:

This is my favorite manuscript picture ever.  This is folio 132v from Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson B 214.  That smudge of red ink and that little fingerprint were made by  John Wilde in the 15th century.  The day I found this, I was working on my palaeography essay during my year at Oxford University.  The effect it had on me was instantaneous and electrifying — here is the fingerprint, so much like my own, of a man who lived over five hundred years ago.  A man who lived and breathed, studied and wrote in a way so much like myself.  A man, perhaps, with hopes and dreams and loves like mine.

A man who probably had some very choice words to say when he smudged the ink in his pretty book.  I know I would, and probably will.

An Experiment: Prelude

The following posts were originally written as short picture-posts on my Tumblr.  I am updating, rewriting and consolidating them here.

A few weeks ago I signed up for a six-week course on papermaking and bookbinding at the Southwest School of Art and Craft in San Antonio, Texas.  I didn’t really have a clear idea at the time of what I wanted to do with the class — I was under the impression we’d make some blank paper and bind it and call it a notebook.  It turns out the scope of the class is to make an entire, finished book with imagery and color.  This is a pretty tall order for six weeks, and became even more so when I determined what I am going to do:

I am going to create an illuminated manuscript.

This blog is going to allow you to follow my descent into madness the progress of this endeavor.  Over the course of the next six weeks I hope to learn the intimate details of the creation of the manuscripts I’m making it my job to study.  I hope you all learn something too.