Making Manuscripts

A manuscript is any book or document that has been hand written by a scribe rather than being printed. All of the medieval texts that we study today, such as Beowulf, were originally presented on manuscripts. In my own opinion, I believe that manuscripts are beautiful pieces of artwork in their own right. Especially illuminated manuscripts as they use an assortment of very vibrant and brilliant ink colours. They are usually decorated with elaborate designs and miniature images which are commonly found in the boarders (marginalia) of the manuscript. Another feature of this type of manuscript is that the first capital letter is always adorned with some manner of decoration whether it be a design or miniature figure encompassing the letter. Illuminated manuscripts tend to deal with religious content so this is why the majority of the designs and images are of a religious nature. The process by which manuscripts were made is extremely interesting. It is a very time consuming and expensive process not only during the medieval period but even today.


Animal skin is used to make manuscripts, as it produces a tactile and durable material. Vellum and parchment are the two materials that were produced from the skins of sheep, calf, goat, camel, and sometimes even sealskin. The difference between parchment and vellum is that vellum is made from calf skin which creates a finer quality parchment. It is difficult to acquaint what material came from which animal. Nevertheless, sheep were the most commonly used besides calves as these animals were readily available.

The first step is to soak the animal skin in alkaline for a couple of weeks in order to break down the fat. When this is complete the skin is run over with a sharp curved knife known as a lunellum, in order to remove any remaining hair and fat. At this stage the skin is very tactile and malleable, so it is fitted to a type frame to stretch it out and dry the wet skin. Stones were then rubbed on it to remove any hardened matter and to smoothen it out. Once the surface is considered smooth, chalk is then rubbed into the skin. This is to help remove any remaining moisture and provides grip for the ink when it is applied to the parchment. At this point it is carefully cut out of the frame and shaped correctly. It is then folded in half along the spine of the animal, which is known as a folio. Any damage previously existing on the animal skin like tick bites or injuries can come out on the finished parchment. However, as a result of its durable nature the maker is able to repair these imperfections by creating patches to cover holes or by simply stitching tears. Even today when you are looking over manuscripts this type of repair work is still visible.

For each animal that was killed it only provided one page of parchment. This is an important piece of information because on top of the process being both time and labour consuming as well as expensive, by the end of it you have only produced one sizable piece of parchment. Subsequently this meant that whatever was written down was considered to be significant enough that the medieval people wanted it to be preserved for future generations. In order to create a manuscript a number of folio’s will be combined and bound together. A heavy cover was then placed onto the manuscript with clasps in order to keep the parchment within from losing its shape. Over time the parchment would revert back it its original animal form so the heavy cover and clasps were used to prevent this from happening.

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