Home  »  The Cambridge History of English and American Literature  »  § 7. Tablets, parchment, vellum, paper, pens, ink, and binding

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

II. Runes and Manuscripts

§ 7. Tablets, parchment, vellum, paper, pens, ink, and binding

Turning to the materials used for writing in medieval England, we gain at once a connecting link with the runic alphabet, since the wooden tablet, the bòc, again appears, though in a somewhat different fashion. A thin coating of wax was now spread over the surface, and the writing was scratched on it with a pointed instrument of metal or bone which, in Old English, was known as graef, and in the later centuries by the French term poyntel. The use of these tablets was widely, spread in the Middle Ages; they served for the school-boy’s exercises and for bills and memoranda of every description, for short letters and rough copies—for anything that was afterwards to be copied out, more carefully, on vellum. In German illuminated MSS. poets are represented as writing their songs and poems on waxen tablets, and, as early as the sixth century, The Rule of St. Benet makes provision for the distribution of tablets and styles to monks. There is, also, evidence of the use of these tablets by Irish monks, who, it may be supposed, would introduce them to their English pupils. And, consequently, we find that Aldhelm, who died in 709, writes a riddle of which the answer is “tablet”—a fact which presupposes a knowledge of the existence of tablets among his contemporaries. Again, in Ethelwold’s Benedictionale of the tenth century, Zacharias (Luke, i, 3) is represented as writing on a waxen tablet.

In the twelfth century we learn concerning Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury ([char]1109), that he was in the habit of making the first sketch of his works on waxen tablets; and, in The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer relates how the summoner’s “fellow” had “a pair of tables all of ivory, and a poyntel ypolished fetisly.”

Far more important, practical and durable as writing material, however, was parchment or vellum, the use of which prevailed throughout the Middle Ages. The Old English name for this was bòc-fel, literally “book-skin,” replaced in Middle English by the French terms parchment and velin (vellum). These terms, originally, were not interchangeable, vellum being, as its name indicates, prepared from calf-skins, parchment from sheep-skins.

At first, the evidence goes to show that monasteries had to prepare their own parchment, either by the help of the monks themselves or of laymen engaged for the purpose. Later, however, the parchment-makers took their place as ordinary craftsmen, and supplied religious and other houses with the necessary material. Thus we find that, in the year 1300, Ely bought five dozen parchments and as many vellums, and, about half a century later, no less than seventy and thirty dozen respectively in order to supply the want of writing material for a few years only. Vellum was, at times, magnificently coloured, the text being, in such cases, inscribed in letters of gold or silver. The most famous example is the Codex argenteus at Upsala. Archbishop Wilfrid of York (664—709) is said to have possessed the four Gospels written on purple vellum in letters of purest gold, a fact which his biographer records as little short of the marvellous. In the British Museum there remains to this day an Old English MS. of the Gospels the first leaves of which are written in golden letters on purple vellum.

Apart from these èditions de luxe, which naturally must have been of enormous cost, ordinary working parchment was a very expensive writing material, and it is small wonder if, onthat account, it gradually had to give way before a new and less costly material. It appears that, from times immemorial, the manufacture of paper from linen rags and hemp was known to the Chinese, who, apparently, taught their art to the Arabs, since paper was exported by that nation at an early date. In the twelfth century paper was known in Spain and Italy, and thence it spread slowly northwards, though it did not come into more general use until the fourteenth century. In the fifteenth century paper manuscripts were very frequent in England, as can be assumed from the great number still remaining in public and private libraries.

For writing, both on parchment and on paper, the quill was used, known in Old English times as fe[char]er in Middle English by the French term penne. The existence of the quill as an implement of writing is proved by one of the oldest Irish MSS., where St. John the Evangelist is represented holding a quill in his hand. Again, Aldhelm has a riddle on penna, in the same way as he had one on the tablet. Other necessary implements for writing and preparing a MS. were a lead for ruling margins and lines, a ruler, a pair of compasses, scissors, a puncher, an awl, a scraping-knife and, last but not least, ink, which was usually kept in a horn, either held in the hand by the scribe, or placed in a specially provided hole in his desk. In Old English times it was known, from its colour, as blaec, but, after the Conquest, the French term enque, our modern English ink, was adopted. The terms horne and ink-horne are both found in old glossaries.

When the body of the text was finally ready, the sheets were passed to the corrector, who filled the office of the modern proof-reader, and from him to the rubricator, who inserted, in more or less elaborate designs, and in striking colours, the rubrics and initials for which space had been left by the scribe. The pieces of parchment were then passed to the binder, who, as a rule, placed four on each other and then folded them, the result being a quire of eight leaves or sixteen pages. The binding was generally strong and solid in character: leather was used for the back and wooden boards for the sides, which were usually covered with parchment of leather or velvet. Thus was established the form and fashion of the book as we know it, whether written or printed.

Besides the book-form, parchment was also made up into rolls, which were especially used for chronological writings and deeds of various kinds.