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.

Continuing Discussion: Does Typeface Affect the Way We Read?

By: Ava Clarke

Typeface is the design of writing which includes variations of size, weight, slope, width and other factors; each of the variations of typeface is a font. It seems like a pretty basic thing that a lot of people might not give much thought beyond what they do or don’t like, and the reason doesn’t matter. 

Typeface is an interesting concept when asking why different fonts even exist in the first place. Looking at my previous post, it is clear that different Gothic fonts were even used for different purposes and were therefore held in different regards: littera textualis formata, the finest and most calligraphic, was used for biblical writings whereas littera rotunda was used for more legal and medical writings (Tesnière, 2020, 328). Gothic fonts that were the most aesthetically pleasing were those used for more important writings because legibility didn’t exactly seem to be a main concern. 

When looking at how typeface can affect how we read something, this can include a variety of different factors: how memorable something is, how likely it is to convince the reader of its argument, the emotional stimuli, the authority it conveys, and the reader’s familiarity with the font. When addressing the fonts of medieval script, the two factors we will be looking at are authority and emotional stimuli. 


In research done by Katherine Haenschen and Daniel Tamul, they look into how fonts can affect the political message of campaigning candidates. Signs created to self-advertise often convey information about the image and personality of the person based on colour choice, logos, and font, though relatively little research has looked into the effect of font (Haenschen and Tamul, 2020, 244). With the research that’s been conducted, researchers have found that typefaces “have different perceived ideological ratings on a liberal-conservative scale” because they convey certain ideological representations that include personality attributes and sentiments (Haenschen and Tamul, 2020, 244-5). 

The successful use of a font often depends on what it’s being used for as empirical work suggests there is typeface “personality” which can include its friendliness, masculinity, or seriousness, which are features not lost on readers (Haenschen and Tamul, 2020, 246). For example, Haenschen and Tamul’s research shows trends where serifs are viewed as more conservative than sans serifs; blackletter is the most conservative; scripts are slightly more liberal than serifs, and; the cartoonish display typeface is perceived to be the most liberal (Haenschen and Tamul, 2020, 252).

The significance is that those fonts which are more rigid and angular, which are more “masculine”, and are associated with conservative political ideologies are those also associated with authority. Conservative parties have always been the right-wing, traditional, historical parties, those whose authority is grounded in the past and has a well-established foundation, therefore are associated with fonts that reflect those same qualities. On the other hand, liberal parties are usually seen as progressive, free-thinkers who tend to look to the future rather than the past, and as such, are associated with less rigid fonts, or even cartoony typefaces in this study. 

Serving as a connection to Gothic script, the tendency to assign human attributes to typeface is not something unique of the 21st century, otherwise there would have been no purpose to differentiating the font used for a Bible from that used for medical notes. Haenschen and Tamul’s research supports that it’s likely medieval scribes, and for that matter society as a whole, accepted certain fonts for biblical writings in part because it conveyed a sense of authority. 

It’s possible that the authority came from one’s ability to read it. Those able to read and write already held a certain stature in society, however those who could read the intensely calligraphic script may have been seen at an even higher status. 



The importance of aesthetics in medieval script was also very important, and like our perceptions of authority, these same personality attributes and sentiments can be applied to our initial like or dislike of a given typeface. In a study by Rui Lia, Ruilin Qina, Junsong Zhanga, Junjie Wua, and Changle Zhoua, the effect of typeface on the aesthetic appeal of Chinese characters is approached through empirical neuroaesthetic research (neuroaesthetics is the study of how aesthetic perception, production, judgment, appreciation, and emotional response are produced and experienced from a neurobiological basis). 

By looking at how the brain reacts, the researchers focused on two stages: (1) early visual information focuses on the immediate and initial stimulus and the brain’s initial reaction to the typeface of the character, and; (2) late positive potential associates the character with a deeper and more logical aesthetic preference (Lia et al, 2015, 59 and 61). The results of their research indicates that in the first stage, most people have rapid recognition and dislike of different typefaces, and the authors suggest that this is largely due to emotional stimuli (Lia et al, 2015, 58 and 62). In the second stage of their study, the results show that preference is strongly driven by dislike: “the typeface of dislike-characters have emotional valence and influence on the human preference processing” (Lia et al, 2015, 62).

Since aesthetics can be shown to occur as common neurological brain functions, it would then clearly apply to those medieval scribes and patrons who decided which script they preferred for different writings, as well as which script would become the standard for general production. Fonts that were aesthetically pleasing would be practiced and regularly used, and those that were not would quickly disappear. 

It would be in addition to or as a constituent to how we perceive authority that can affect our aesthetics, and the kind of aesthetic value we give it. While legal or medical script would possibly be more rigid, the spiritual authority that comes from the Church may endeavor to be authoritative yet beautiful.



Haenschen, Katherine & Tamul, Daniel. “What’s in a Font?: Ideological Perceptions of Typography.” 2020 Communication studies 71:2, 244. 

Lia, Rui; Qina, Ruilin; Zhanga, Junsong; Wua, Junjie & and Zhoua, Changle. “The esthetic preference of Chinese typefaces – An event-related potential study.” 2015 Brain Research 1598, 57. 

Tesnière, Marie-Hélène. “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), 328.

Medieval Illustrations and Collaborative Works

Hello to those in Medieval Manuscripts,

This blog post is going to talk about the topic of illustration in manuscripts, specifically about the collaborative nature of the artists’ work. While reading about the process of illustration in preparation for leading class discussion, I learned that the organization and different types of illustration was more complicated than I first assumed. With the artists split into smaller workshops, the variety of illustration types, and the complex process of putting together a cohesive manuscript as a multipage work, the illustrating of these pages became a trial in collaborative working and communication. In this post I will explain how these collaborations may have functioned, as well as the impacts this had on the final product, and how we are able to study these manuscripts as collaborative works as opposed to individual projects.

The Driver reading specifically is what I used for most of my questions during class, and I found it explained the breakdown of these collaborations very well, so the evidence will reflect the place the article is set, England. The reading describes how the guild for these illustrators, called “limners” in the article, was created in the fourteenth century in order to aid in artists collaborations, and was meant to help guide the complex social and commercial relations of the practice. This was important, as artists often worked in small workshops that would only fit a few people at a time, and though the shops were often grouped together in the same general area commercially, the communication between them needed to be clear and easily regulated. 

These individual workshops could have been organized according to specializations, as there were several different defined types of illustration that would have been used, with artists often working in one of these types. In the article, the types discussed include opaque pigments, pen and ink drawings, and a coloured drawing style, each having their own varieties. These illustrations then would fall into specific categories depending on their format and use, such as miniatures, marginal scenes, and historiated initials. The wide array of art styles and layouts throughout surviving manuscripts means that there are many ways of categorizing and defining these illustrations, of which the article goes into more detail. This is important to the idea of collaboration because the more art styles and formats that were used in a manuscript, the greater chance of multiple hands with certain specializations being involved in the creation. This can be an explanation as to why the quality, technique, or even colouration can change across a single page, as it would have been passed along the workshops in order to be worked depending upon what the format of the page is to be

The day to day production and organization of these manuscripts is still left largely to speculation, with the collaborative nature often being identified though the presence of differences in style or quality suggesting multiple hands. Though some of the formatting and organization planning can be seen in the use of graphite or charcoal to lightly map out the page, the way that this would have been communicated between workshops and individual artists remains in question. The specialization among the artists, with individuals working in a specific style or part of the page (eg. borders, initials, etc.), spread out to involve many workshops grouped together, would help to explain the multiple hands being identified, but does little to help understand how these artists would have communicated what would have been on the pages themselves.

The close grouping of these shops lead to modern historians assuming that  many of the instructions given between the artists themselves would have been through oral instructions, either through speaking to one another or through others in the shops. There is evidence for written instruction, but are typically short and lack detail. Historiated or illustrated initials may have been lightly outlined, showing where the artist would have painted, which is present in uncompleted manuscripts. For more complex instruction, there would have been short instructions written in the margins, or pictorial models sketched lightly beside the text. The article also briefly discusses “modelbooks”, which was a collection of designs used by guilds that may have been used as reference. 

The evidence of collaboration in medieval manuscripts is one that is hard to distinguish, as the creation of these works would not have been seen as an individualistic project. The article does a good job of explaining how the identity of these artists remain largely unknown, as their work was often done anonymously. This is why using the evidence found in the article, such as the multiple styles, the instructions in margins, and the communication between workshops, is important to deducing the production process and giving insight into the organization of the artists. I found this to be incredibly interesting when doing the reading, as art and bookmaking is often seen as an individualistic project in modern day, and the idea of anonymous work in these books is an idea that goes against the ideas of being acknowledged for work as an individual which are normalized in modern society.