I have for many years past had an interest in medieval illumination and calligraphy and as a historian I have a particular interest in the wonderful manuscripts produced in medieval times. I’d already been lucky enough to attend an illumination course at the Princes School of Traditional Arts with Helen White, an eminent calligrapher and illuminator and when my friend Alison told me of a vacant place on a Traditional Skills course with the Sussex Scribes and Illuminators, I jumped at the chance.
The course, run by our teacher Josie Brown, is split into 4 days divided over a year and the first part was about vellum. The day started with an explanation of what the difference is between parchment and vellum. Parchment has become a generic term for any prepared animal skin. In fact William Horman, Headmaster at Eton College in the early Sixteenth Century described it as –
‘That stouffe that we wrytte upon: and is made of beestis skynnes: is somtyme called parchment, somtyme velem’.
Vellum is in fact specifically made of calf skins. There is a wonderful array of different types of vellum available, such as uterine vellum made from the skin of aborted calves, which may sound particularly cruel but when you think that the skin and probably the carcass would be wasted anyway, as would all calf skins, it takes on the form of that infamous saying ‘waste not, want not’. Uterine vellum is particularly fine, as the animal was never exposed to the harsh environment of the outside world.
Many of the skins are produced by William Cowley’s, an old family firm from Buckinghamshire who have been in business since the 1870s. Everyone in the class was astonished by the high cost of vellum (my small roughly A4 sized piece cost £31.50) but after looking at photos of the lengthy process involved in preparing a vellum, the cost became understandable. According to Christopher De Hamel’s book ‘Medieval Craftsmen – Scribes and Illuminators’, the cost for a skin in the early to mid 14th C was 3d per sheet. Which probably sounds extremely cheap but relative to a peasants earnings, which might only be a 1 a day it was very expensive and was the second most expensive material, next to gold in the production of a book.
Vellum is a remarkable material and Josie demonstrated to us how strong it is by showing how it had bowed a piece of hardboard that she had prepared. The board had bowed under the pull of the vellum. Vellum responds to the different atmospheres that it is stored in and she showed us another of her works that had ‘exploded’ off it’s board after being moved from the cool, damp atmosphere of an old house into a warm, sunny library for 3 weeks. This I thought was a wonderful part of Josie’s teaching. It can be very intimidating to have a perfect teacher, who never appears to have made an error and it was reassuring to see that experts made errors too. Which greatly put us at ease.
Historically for medieval book and scroll making, parchment was not stretched as we were doing on the course. During its life the vellum would be shut inside a weighted book, thus there wouldn’t be so many problems with it curling as there might be in a modern framed piece of work.
Josie showed us how to stretch our vellum over a piece of MDF. The boards had been coated with PVA glue and then sanded. We measured round our boards and marked out the parchment as directed. The vellum was then placed under teabag paper (yes really, the stuff they use to make teabags, bought from a scrap store) and damped over with a light sponging and left under a weight for 5 minutes. A piece of cartridge paper, slightly smaller than the board was very lightly glued in place, then the vellum placed on top and the whole turned over. We glued the flaps we had cut on the sides and back in place with more PVA. Handmade natural paper was then glued on as backing.
After lunch the manuscripts had dried perfectly flat. A few of us were a little nervous that we would get it wrong and waste the precious vellum but all turned out just fine and we had worried needlessly.
The afternoon was spent learning how to prepare the vellum. We applied ground pumice to our left over pieces of skin to remove natural grease and then sanded some areas of the vellum with fine sand paper, leaving other areas un-sanded. We used various materials on the skin in different test patches such as pumice, cuttlefish bone and gum sandarac. This was so that we could see what it was like to write on the different surfaces. Having sanded my skin too lightly at first, I had to sand it further, to give it a good nap until it had a suede like texture. Josie explained that trying to write on an unprepared skin would feel a bit like skating on ice, the pen would be trying to slip everywhere. Sanding and applying these powders gave something for the pen and ink to grip and bite into, so that the letters would be nice and crisp with no bleeding. We had great fun shaking the powders on and off our vellum and I felt a little like I had been transported back in time to a playtime afternoon at infants school, as I was having such fun. Josie also educated us that any vellum which was to be painted and not written on need not be prepared in this way.
Next we looked at how to make an erasure with a curved knife. I have grown very fond of oak gall ink recently and used it on my vellum but found out the hard way that although authentically medieval scribes may have used oak gall ink, it is extremely hard to erase from vellum and it can sink deep into the material and be visible from the other side. This is why medieval scribes are often shown with quill in the right hand and pen knife in the left, so it was at hand to immediately scrape away any errors. My letters written in gouache were much more successful. We practised correcting a letter. In my case I changed an italic a to a letter u and was very pleased with the result. Vellum is such a marvellous material to work with and I found myself instantly falling in love with it.
At the end of the day, we all compared works to see what had worked and what hadn’t. My only regret of the day was that it went by too quickly, the day was well thought out and planned, with lots of information. I came away with the inspiration and knowledge to feel that I could prepare my own skins in the future. I am very much looking forward to part 2. Roll on June!