Et Cetera

Medieval Wedding Invitations

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

If you’re looking for custom medieval wedding invitations, look no further! I design and create wedding invitations for themed weddings: medieval, Celtic, fairy, Renaissance, Lord of the Rings, or whatever fantasy world you have in mind. I can work in a variety of medieval and fantasy styles, so your invitations can set the tone for your special day. Since the invitations are usually the first impression your guests will have of your wedding, it’s important that they create the right mood and setting.

I don’t just create invitations! I can take care of all of your wedding calligraphy needs: invitations, RSVP cards, maps and directions, envelope addressing, thank you cards, guest scrolls, programs, party favors, place cards, menu cards, and whatever else you might need.

If you’re planning a medieval wedding, don’t hesitate to contact me! I am one of the few designers of medieval wedding invitations in the United States (I am located in Seattle, Washington). I would love to help make your fantasy a reality!

Pangur Ban, calligrapher’s cat

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

Today I am addressing envelopes for a medieval wedding, and I am being supervised by my 8-month-old kitten, Pangur Ban.

It is delightfully appropriate that Pangur Ban should watch me doing calligraphy today: I am writing in Insular Minuscule (well, my slightly modernized, post-office friendly version thereof), the script in which I found his name. The name Pangur Ban comes from an eighth century Irish manuscript, the Reichenau Primer. The monk who wrote this little collection of texts added a poem at the bottom of one page about his cat, Pangur Ban, which starts:

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.
[follow this link to read the whole poem]

It’s wonderful to know that this eighth-century scribe, whose style I try to imitate, also had a pet cat who amused him as he wrote. Sometimes my cats get in the way of calligraphy, but today I think my little Pangur Ban knows that my writing is important to his identity, and he’s making sure I do it right.

Iron Gall Ink

Friday, December 4th, 2009

In an effort to get closer to the medieval techniques that I emulate in my calligraphy, I have started using Iron Gall ink. This was the ink most commonly used in the Middle Ages (and beyond). It’s interesting stuff: you start with oak galls, which are round growths found on oak trees. Oak galls appear when a wasp lays its eggs on an oak tree: the tree responds by building a ball around the eggs, and that ball is full of tannic acid, the same stuff that is used to tan leather. The oak gall is crushed up and mixed with liquid, and then iron salt is added to it. This makes a very dark black (or sometimes purplish) ink that is waterproof and does not fade, and which absorbs very well into parchment.

You can still buy iron gall ink today. It is very interesting stuff to work with. It is a very thin liquid (at least the stuff I am using is). When you first write with it, it is a very pale grey, almost clear. This makes it a challenge to use until you get used to it: when I write with it, I find myself pressing very hard with the nib because I feel like I’m not actually making much contact with the paper, or dipping my nib in the ink more frequently then I need to. But within an instant of contact with the air, the ink begins to darken. You can watch it get darker and darker over the first few seconds that it is on the page. It gets quite dark quite quickly, but if you come back in 24 hours and look at it again, you will see that it has gotten even darker. It darkens to a satisfying deep black color.

In the picture below, you can see the text darkening as it ages:

Iron gall ink is definitely a challenge to work with at first, but the results are well worth it, especially on parchment!

Anglicana Script

Friday, November 20th, 2009

I have been working on my Anglicana script lately. The term “Anglicana” actually describes a whole family of scripts that were in vogue in late medieval Britain. British scribes were looking for a script that was easy to write small and quickly, so by the fourteenth century they had developed a distinctly English script. It usually wasn’t used for really expensive and fancy books, but a formal version of Anglicana is very frequently found in medium-grade books, and there was also a cursive form that was used in cheap books, documentary records, and personal correspondence.

This script is definitely easier to write than Gothic, and has a nice flow to it. It does come out looking a little sloppy, but that’s part of the point of the script: it is meant to be written quickly. In fact, it was a challenge to learn the script because I needed to write very slowly to learn it, but a lot of the letter forms can only be written quickly, or they come out looking wrong.

Here is a small medieval example of Anglicana:

More can be found here. You can also browse images of the Ellesmere Chaucer, which I used extensively when I was learning the script.


Saturday, October 31st, 2009

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m learning how to use gold leaf with a technique called raised gilding. The cool thing about raised gilding is that the gold leaf is, well, raised – it is 3-D, so the light really glints off the gold. Photographs don’t do it justice – if you ever have an opportunity to see raised gilding in any context, you really have to see it in person to see how shiny it is.

What makes raised gilding work is the gesso. Gesso is a mixture of white lead, slaked plaster, and glue (along with a few other ingredients) that holds the gold leaf to the page. Gesso has to face an amazing challenge: it makes a 3-D surface on top of a piece of paper or parchment. The paper or parchment has to be able to bend underneath it, without the gesso flaking off. So the gesso has to be both 3-D and flexible.

If gesso is prepared just right, it ends up with an amazing chemical composition that allows it to have both shape and flexibility. If you’re interested in the chemical properties of gesso, the expert on the topic is Jerry Tresser. In fact, if you’re interested in raised gilding at all, he’s the guy to talk to. You can read his book, The Technique of Raised Gilding, or visit his website. Jerry is an incredibly kind and patient man, and has helped me immensely in learning how to use gesso.

To use gesso, you first apply it to paper or parchment using a nib or a brush. It’s a fairly thick substance, and it has a tendency to want to pool to itself. You make little mounds of gesso in the desired shape on the paper.

Once the gesso is dry, the polishing begins. Lots and lots of polishing. The gesso needs to be completely smooth and shiny – once the gold is applied to it, the gold will take on the exact shape of the gesso, and any imperfections in the shape of the gesso will be immediately obvious. So you polish. And polish and polish and polish. I’m using a burnisher made of agate. It takes a lot of pressure, and a lot of polishing.

Gesso can be pretty forgiving, though. If you make an mistake in it that can’t be polished out, you can moisten it and add more gesso to smooth it out. And you can polish out a lot of mistakes.


Saturday, August 1st, 2009

One of the biggest aesthetic shifts between medieval and modern book layout is ruling. Medieval scribes would draw straight lines on their paper and on their margins to keep their writing straight, much like modern notebook paper. Today, we consider these sorts of guide lines to be juvenile – only children write letters on ruled paper. In the Middle Ages, though, they were not only functional, but considered a part of the book’s aesthetic appeal. In fact, the more expensive and lavish the book, the more ruling it included.

Ruling could be done in several ways. Usually scribes would prick a series of little holes along the very edges of their parchment, evenly spaced. Then they would draw straight lines connecting these little marginal holes. This was a very efficient method, since they could prick holes in a whole stack of parchment. Sometimes the margins with the holes were trimmed off, but often they remain. The lines might just be scored into the parchment with a knife, but with thin parchment this can lead to some unhappy mistakes. Sometimes they would use a lead pencil – not graphite like a modern pencil, but actual lead, which left a faint red line. Sometimes they used ink. Ruling is most commonly done in red, but sometimes they would use a variety of colors.

I really like how rulings look – they add a wonderful visual regularity to a manuscript page. Some rulings go all the way to the edge of the margin, and some do not, and this creates some very interesting boundaries. The marginal art sometimes plays with these boundaries in some fun ways.

Ruling was such an important part of the appearance of a book’s pages that when printing was invented, the printers would sometimes rule a page after it had been printed. Those rulings served no function except to be pretty and make a printed book look fancy.

Buying Parchment

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

As a follow-up to my post about parchment, I have noticed that a lot of people find my site by doing internet searches about where to buy parchment. Well, there are two places you can buy parchment in the US:

Sheets of parchment are pretty expensive, but if you’re just interested in seeing/handling some, they sell scraps for pretty cheap. The modern stuff is still nothing like medieval parchment, though.

If you want to feel medieval parchment, I recommend inquiring at the nearest library. Most large academic libraries and an awful lot of large public libraries have rare book collections, and more often than not they will at least have a few leaves from medieval manuscripts, if not complete books. Rare book collections might seem intimidating at first, but the librarians are usually delighted when people actually want to see the books. Some libraries will make you wear gloves to handle medieval manuscripts, but most will let you touch the parchment with bare hands, as long as you wash them first.


Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

I have been fortunate enough to have several opportunities to handle medieval parchment – it is an experience I wish everyone could have. Parchment is an absolutely amazing material. It is soft to the touch – some of it feels like suede, some more like microfiber, and some like well-polished ivory. It was made in various thicknesses – some parchment is coarse and very thick and stiff, and some parchment is as thin as onion-skin paper. I have never written on parchment myself (mostly because modern parchment is inferior), but you can tell just from looking at it that it must be glorious to write on – it absorbs the ink, so that the ink sinks into the flesh much like a tattoo on human flesh.

Fortunately for medieval scholars, parchment is amazingly durable. It can survive huge fluctuations in temperature and humidity, it can survive being under water (the Book of Kells has endured a dunking or two), and really just about anything else you might want to do to it. Parchment books made in the early Middle Ages will long outlast any books being printed today.

Unfortunately, the making of parchment is somewhat of a lost art. There are still people who do it, and you can still buy parchment. But no one knows anymore how to make it as fine and smooth and soft and supple as they did in the Middle Ages.

So how did they make it? Well, for starters, they had to slaughter an animal – parchment is usually made from the skin of a sheep, cow, or goat. In fact, the whole reason books are proportioned like they are is that animal skins are rectangular. The skin is then soaked in a mixture of lye, urine, and other stuff until the hair falls off (and thanks to this smelly concoction, parchment-makers always had to live on the edge of town). Then it is put on a stretching rack, where it is stretched and scraped with a knife to get the remaining hair off and make it smooth. It was then rubbed with pumice to make a good writing surface. Parchment might go through several cycles of soaking and stretching until it is just right. Then it is cut into rectangles and written on.

One of my favorite things about parchment is how it bears the marks of the animal it came from. Some cheap parchment came from spotted animals, so the pages of the book have spots. You can often see the direction of the animal’s hair, and identify the swirly hair on the hip. If an animal had a scar, that shows up on the parchment too.

Here is more information about parchment:

Scribes and Scribal Tools

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

For your browsing pleasure, here are links to a bunch of medieval images of scribes and scribal tools.

You’ll notice that in almost all the images, the scribe is holding a quill pen in one hand, and a knife in the other. The knife had multiple functions – you can tell from the pictures that they used it to hold the parchment down. They also used the knife as an eraser – if a scribe made a mistake, he could scrape the ink off the parchment before it had time to sink in permanently.

The scribes almost always sit at nice slanted drafting tables. I wish I had one that nice! The image above is from an early 14th century manuscript in the British Library (originally found here). I like the scribe’s middle-school-style wraparound desk, and the stand he has to hold up the book he is copying from.