The Creation of a Medieval Book

By: Ava Clarke

In our class about bookbinding, we make a small 32-page book in the book arts lab with a paper cover. During this process, we folded the paper so that we would be binding with the grain, then used linen thread to sew the pages together along the last fold we made. To this last fold, we added the additional decorative paper cover to it. Some students had to use knives to then cut the folds of the paper which would make the pages, and others got to use the cutting machine Larry has in the lab. 

This made me think back to the book dissection exercise we did because our 32-page books looked very much like the individual sections of the destroyed books, but it made me wonder about how these 32-page sections would be bound together to create a larger book and how the cover would be attached to it. I then wondered if the material if it was written on would affect how it was bound, and at what point the actual writing would take place. With all these questions, I decided to create a step-by-step guide, a collection of all the readings and some outside sources to answer these questions. 

Step 1: Medium Making 

The first step (naturally) is to actually make the surface which will be turned into the pages. Before the 1400s, the most common writing medium was dried animal skin. Which skins are chosen to be turned into parchment can be tricky because unlike leather, the skin is not dyed, so all the blemishes show up. After a suitable skin is chosen, it is preserved in salt for a few months before it is cleaned. 

During the cleaning process, the hide is put in a lime solution. The chemical composition of lime is calcium hydroxide, which when applied to the skins for extended periods of time (usually 2-4 days for cleaning a skin), causes the skin to swell and release its hair follicles. The hair can easily be scraped off and this creates a smooth, undamaged skin that can then begin stretching. 

Once all the hair is off, the inside of the hide that was on the flesh still has to be cleaned. The skin is stretched out in a frame to create a taut surface because the fat on the inside still has to be removed. The fat, largely unaffected by the lime solution, has to be scraped off with a knife before it is dried. The drying process takes at least 4 weeks 

Step 2: Writing 

When the parchment is cleaned and dried and ready to be written on, it moves onto the second stage, which is actually writing the contents of the book. The content of the pages is organized before it makes it onto the parchment because, like our book-making lab, they are folded into a book form, so the organization must come before it is written. 

When the organization was understood, the parchment was first ruled so that the scribes knew where they’re writing; it also helped with the grander design of the page. We now know from our workshop on creating and using quills how this was done. Using a relatively large feather, perhaps from a goose or swan, the vane and the afterfeather were removed, leaving the hollow calamus. We had to sand the waxy membrane off of the outside and scrape it from the inside as well so that the ink actually stuck to it. Usually it would be cured or treated to harden, however we did not do this step. Next we cut the part of the end off so that it looks like a small, curved shovel, and then cut a slit down the center which holds the ink. 

In terms of the script used, the last three centuries of the medieval period, Gothic script developed in Europe and encompassed a number of different types of scripts of which littera textualis was common. During this time, there was also a number of descriptive words to indicate the stature in which a script was written: formata which describes a “perfect” script written with care, libraria which is for ordinary books, and currens which is generally written quickly and without care. When we practiced with our quills, we were practicing the scripts used for our selected manuscripts, and were practicing either textura quadrata, rotunda, or early Gothic.  

Step 3: Illumination

Illumination was also something we got to practice in the book arts lab. Illumination was something done after the basic writing was completed. The ruling stage before the writing began is particularly important to the illumination because it reserved space for large, decorative letters as well as additional art, if used. The illuminated areas were first outlined with lead or ink, and then filled in with bright inks, the most common being red, blue, green and gold. 

The actual illumination part mostly applies to the gold leaf that would be added to the page. The areas which would be truly illuminated with gold were painted with a sticky substance such as bole (a refined red clay) or gum ammoniac (sap). When the gold leaf was applied, it was rubbed in to give it a shiny appearance, most noticeable when the pages would be turned. 

Step 4: Binding 

When we made our books, we started by folding the paper with the grain and folded it a total of 4 times to create 16 squares, or 32 pages (recto and verso). Along the last fold, we sewed the book together, attaching the decorative cover paper. When the book makers of medieval times did this, they would not have added a decorative cover page because each folded collection of parchment (called gatherings) would be attached to others to create a larger book. 

In creating the larger book, the gatherings would be arranged in the order in which they’d be read and then sewn together, attached to narrow thongs, which were supporters often made out of leather. The binder would then attach end binds to the top and bottom of the spine of the book. The ends of the spine supporters would then be fed through channels of wooden boards (if the book were a hardcover) and could be held in place by wooden pegs or iron nails. The wood was then covered, usually with leather. 

For a demonstration on bookbinding, please check out this video from the Getty Museum!


“Bookbinding: A Comprehensive Guide”, found in Perusall. 

“How Parchment is Made,” BBC, found in Perusall. 

Marie-Hélène Tesnière, “Gothic Script in France in the Later Middle Ages (XIIIth-XVth centuries)” in Frank T. Coulson and Robert C. Babcock, eds, The Oxford Handbook of Latin Paleography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 321.