The Process of Recreation

The entire process of recreating a manuscript has given me an entirely new appreciation for the work that came before the invention of modern printing and automated work. From my own (in)experience, there is so much that goes into the creation of a manuscript that I hadn’t realized was necessary. In order to fully express the amount of things that were a surprise to me I have created a little step by step guide to the things that I missed (and why I should have realized I would need them).

Part One: Measuring the Folio

We were told to measure anything and everything that we could. While this felt fairly straightforward to me, I still managed to miss some fairly important measurements that made the next step of the process incredibly difficult to figure out. 

Using 63v from my manuscript, it is easy to tell that there are a lot of important things to be measured in order to get the recreation right. The first thing that was necessary to measure was the size of the page (53cm by 34.5cm), however it became a struggle to recreate when I realized that the damage that has occurred over time made it so that the two sides were actually different sizes by a significant margin. This led to me wondering if I should try to recreate it as it may have been originally (with the pages being about the same length) or if I should use these different sizes to recreate its current state (and use the actual sizes to line up the page contents). In the end I decided to use the sizes that I had in front of me in the hopes that they would make it easier to rule later.

Continuing from what I thought was a good start, I measured all the letters in the large section of text, the space between the staff lines, the size of the music notes, the decorated ‘D’, and so on. However, in my measuring I somehow forgot to measure the margins on the top and bottom and the size of the lines where the lyrics sat. 

Part Two: Ruling

I went into the Book Arts Lab thinking that the ruling was going to be a fun experience that was going to let me get started on my manuscript recreation and everything was going to be great. It was decidedly not fun. Especially when my missed measurements from Part One became apparent.

After trying my best to guess the measurements and draw out what I thought would work for the margins that I had missed, I found that the pricking itself was much harder than it looked. Making the holes themselves was easy enough but trying to keep the holes the correct distance apart so as to not change my measurements and lines became very hard, especially when I was already guessing what it should look like. I will be honest in saying that I sat at that table questioning my choices and how books were ever made in the past with all the small, easily missed details there were in creating them.

Part Three: The Transcription and Bookhands

Although the measurements and ruling made me seriously question my choices, the transcription was a whole new game of frustration that I wasn’t ready for. After having my manuscript described as “the dog’s breakfast” in terms of lettering I was so close to not doing the transcription and pretending I knew what I was doing…only to find out that my lettering would seriously suffer if I didn’t know what letters I was actually trying to create. 

Learning about the ways that you can see the brush strokes in letters and the way that calligraphy is so much more complicated than modern handwriting with pens and pencils was so interesting to me. But of course that meant I had to start another difficult journey of pulling apart my manuscript, analyzing brush strokes and shapes when some of the letters did not resemble any letter. It was also interesting to discover that no one has pen nibs that were the right size for the letters that I was dealing with. Apparently nibs only get so large now and it was a mystery to us all how I was going to write some of these massive letters. Despite this, I thought that I did a pretty good job of recreating the parts that I could decipher.

Part Four: The Aftermath

At the end of the day, this experience was actually a lot of fun and has taught me so much more about book making in the Middle Ages than reading a textbook on it would have. The frustration that I felt every step along the way really showed me the amount of work these scribes and bookbinders would have had to do to get entire books done – not even just a single page like I have been working with. What made me appreciate this even more is the fact that I was struggling with recreation, not even making my own manuscript from nothing, having to measure out how many words I can fit on a line and when I should be using shorthand instead of a full word. This process has left me with more questions than answers. How did anyone get a book finished? How many people did it take to complete some of these monstrous manuscripts that we have? Who was the first person to use these processes and how did others react to the work being suggested? Did anyone else have the urge to throw things like I did? I knew creating books in the past was by no means easy but this process has seriously made me wonder how we ever got to the point that we did. 

Looking back on the experience, it really was a learning experience and looking back on it so harshly is just a product of my own inexperience. I would be interested in seeing some of these scribes first attempts at ruling and measuring out their pages, especially seeing as they would have been learning in a time where their materials were so much more valuable. I have the privilege of being able to make as many mistakes as I want and being able to just go back and restart but that might not have been an option for most scribes. As a whole, I have more questions that will likely never be answered but it has opened my eyes just a little bit more to the invention of bound books and the progression to modern books.