Inks and Pigments

As we near the end of term, our final Omeka catalogue entries are looming and the final pieces of our manuscripts are slowly being put together (figuratively of course). With this in mind, I came to the realization that my manuscript really has no provenance or origin that jumps up from the page in the form of a watermark or colophon. It was then brought to my attention in class that I will have to look at the ink and colours used in my manuscript – an incredibly taunting task to be performed, considering I am lacking in the history of pigments and inks. It was this that sparked the idea of this blog post; what do all these beautiful ink colours mean on these manuscripts and how did they come about.

I will not go into great detail over how the ink and pigments were made (as we have already learned about that), however as a quick recap: black ink was made from oak galls, and coloured inks were generally made from mineral pigments (red ochre, umber, yellow ochre).[1] Black ink made up the whole of the writing, with red ink (for which lead is the basis) for the rubric headings, though sometimes they appear in blue or green.[2] It is also noted that coloured inks were not only used for decorative purposes, but could be used to indicate a hierarchy of importance, such as saints’ names or feast days in a calendar.[3]

Upon further inspection of my manuscript throughout the semester, it is evident that it includes a lot of colour due to the miniature paintings that are located on the sides of each psalm. Along the edges of the text, and in the beginning initial of certain words, there is a metallic gold colour. The gold colour in most manuscripts is in fact not done with liquid pigment, it is actually made with “immensely thin sheets of beaten out metallic gold known as gold leaf”.[4] It was a tedious process that involved a brush that was used to apply gesso (plaster compound) so that the surface area of the page would be slightly raised, and then when dry it was smoothed and the gold leaf was applied with glue and sugar, to make it more adhesive.[5] Due to the skill, and money, needed to add gold leaf to manuscripts, it was usually something important that was being created, or someone with wealth (institution or patron) was commissioning such a piece to be made. Though, while my manuscript features lots of gold, there does not appear to be any raised surfaces where the gold is, which could indicate an older medieval manuscript if the gold initials were only painted on with a liquid gold suspension.[6]

While it is a difficult task to try to find out where my manuscript came from, doing further research definitely helps in trying to recognize certain aspects of medieval manuscripts that were done in certain periods. So, if you are ever stumped with trying to pin point the origin or provenance of your manuscript, look no further than the ink, pigments and style of writing!

Here are some further readings that offer way more detail into pigments and inks:



[1] Douma, Michael, curator. “Medieval Age (500-1400),” para. 2, Pigments Through the Ages, 2008,

[2] Tillotson, Dianne, “Inks and Colourings (2),” para. 3, Medieval Writing, 2011,

[3] Tillotson, Inks and Colourings (2), para 5.

[4] Tillotson, Inks and Colourings (2), para 11.

[5] Tillotson, Inks and Colourings (2), para 11.

[6] Tillotson, Inks and Colourings (2), para 14.

Getting Reading for Week 7: Abbreviations

*This week’s blog post is brought to you by Veronica and Lynsay*

This week we’re looking at abbreviations! Though many people today use abbreviations when sending messages over text, few might realize that shortening words isn’t actually a new practice. These readings will examine the use of abbreviations (and punctuation in the case of Intro to Manuscript Studies and Shady Characters) across various regions in Medieval Europe. The textbook introduced us to some new Latin words as well; distinctiones, positurae and a few other Latin phrases thrown around. Latin does not come naturally to me, so it tends to take longer for me to grasp the definition of certain Latin words. Here’s a quick reminder of those two words (because if I was reading this I would have had no clue what those were from the top of my head):

 Distinctiones: single points (punctus) that were placed at different heights to indicate different pauses while reading.

Positurae: a system that showed the reader how they should use their voice while reading (higher, lower, emphasis) using different punctus.

  • In what situations might abbreviations be preferable? What are the benefits and disadvantages for historians when looking at manuscripts that use abbreviations? What are the possible ways to overcome the challenge of understanding/transcribing abbreviations?
  • Much like the style of text abbreviations seems to vary across different regions. What might account for these differences? Why weren’t they just universal? Have you noticed during our time any differences in abbreviations across countries or regions?
  • Take a look at your own manuscript. Can you see any abbreviations or punctuation? Do they look like any of the examples provided in the textbook or are they their own alien punctuation?
  • Why do you think abbreviations were different depending on the region (Latin regions that is)? Why weren’t they just universal?
  • Not so much a question, but the third part of the Emoji article was published on October 14th, so I recommend taking a look:


Expanding and comprehending abbreviations can be a frustrating process but it provides another piece of the puzzle when historians try to understand medieval manuscripts. The next step is trying to share what we know about abbreviations with the wider public in a way that does not come off as dry and boring. Also, we need to find a way to share what we know about abbreviations to help further academics with their transcriptions down the road. As you read think about ways we can share with others (both academics and the wider public) our understanding of medieval abbreviations.


Monks, Scribes and Transcribing… Oh My!

This week in class we began the increasingly tedious task of transcribing our medieval manuscripts. One might think “oh well, this must be easy, all I’m doing is copying what I see in front of me!”. To a new transcriber, that thought is so wrong, so very, very wrong. Medieval Latin has this “amazing” thing where it uses unfamiliar abbreviations, sometimes there are no breaks in sentences or words and occasionally the letters do not look how they do in today’s modern alphabet. It took me an hour to transcribe 3 short lines of my manuscript, and there are definitely some questionable words I have created, due to the fact that I cannot decipher the correct letters and/or spelling. While this process is ridiculously frustrating, it is also incredibly fascinating (if you like this kind of stuff, that is). While I spent my time trying to configure my 3 lines, I came to think: “if I’m struggling with 3 lines, how on earth did monks copy/transcribe whole volumes of books?!”.  It wasn’t as simple as copying line per line; most of the time Latin was not the first language of monks (depending on where they were from), so copying Latin texts was no easy feat – or even if they spoke Latin flawlessly, a lot of texts were in Greek as well. This all lead to my final question, how or why did monks transcribe? Where did it begin? So I did some further research to find out.
I came across a fantastic website from Dartmouth University called Dartmouth Ancient Books Lab, which offers historical background on paleography, codicology and papyrology.  The specific article I looked at is called Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life, which explains the origins of copying texts. It all began with an Egyptian Christian named Pachomius who believed that all monks should be literate, and then some two hundred years later a man named Benedict established an Italian monastery called Monte Cassino.[1] From there, Benedict created guidelines, which he called Rule of Saint Benedict, and describes what the daily routine of a monk should be (which included tons of reading).[2] Soon after, copying texts became part of a monk’s life, due to a man named Cassiodorus’s Institutes rule book.[3] Monks believed that copying texts, especially biblical texts, were a way to spread the word of god and to fight the “snares of the devil”.[4] They often worked grueling hours, especially if they were particularly skilled at copying texts, which could lead the monks to feel anxious, hopeless and apathetic.[5] This was known as acedia, or as we know it today, depression (I mean who wouldn’t feel these things after sitting hours and hours a day inside with little to no conversation).
Not only was the copying and reading manual labour, there were also some issues that arose with it. For one, human error is inevitable, so words were spelt wrong, miscopied, forgotten or skipped on purpose (or sometimes even entire lines were just eradicated from the copied text).[6]
There were so many difficulties that a monk faced on a day-to-day basis, it’s hard to believe that people worked with these conditions. After writing this post I definitely feel I got the better end of the stick then the monks, and I’ll have to remember that copying my 13-line manuscript is not as grueling as a monk’s work!

If you want a more detailed explanation of a monk’s work, then check out these websites:


[1] Victoria Corwin, “Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life,” para. 1, Trustees of Dartmouth College, May 24th 2016,

[2] Corwin, Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life, para.1.

[3] Corwin, Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life, para.1.

[4] Corwin, Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life, para.1.

[5] Corwin, Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life, para.2.

[6] Corwin, Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life, para.3.


A Little Bit About Me (Lynsay)

Hello! My name is Lynsay O’Hara and I am currently in my fourth year at Carleton University, and I am majoring in History with a minor in Archaeology. I am from the Ottawa area, however I lived in Rome, Italy for three years due to my parents being in the Canadian Armed Forces. It was living in Rome where my love of history began; first with ancient history and then I began to discover Medieval history, which I can now safely say is my favourite (though any history will pique my interest). Though Medieval history has stolen my heart, ancient Egypt will always hold a special place as it is what first grabbed my attention into the wonderful world of history. The beautiful images on tombs and towering statues of Rameses II are originally what grabbed my attention, and then books (fiction and non-fiction) continued my interest in ancient Egypt, which led to Cleopatra and then to ancient Rome, which inveterately led to the Renaissance. Once I started researching the Renaissance, I wanted to know how these people lived before their ‘rebirth’, and so began my thirst for knowledge on all things Medieval.

My interests (other than studying history) include mostly reading about, you guessed it, history. I mostly enjoy historical fiction, however I dabble in fiction and YA (Young Adult). My favourite novels are the Outlander novels by Diana Gabaldon- I highly recommend these books, however if you do not enjoy reading books that contain 900+ pages then they are not for you. My absolute favourite novel however, is Nefertiti by Michelle Moran. I also like to write in my spare time- mostly fiction at this point, however it is a dream of mine to publish a book one day, whether it be a fiction one or an academic novel discussing the lives of Medieval women (Merovingian queens, to be more exact). On this note, I am also hoping to begin my Masters’ next year, which ideally will focus on Medieval Studies.

I absolutely cannot wait to begin diving into the digital history world! This will be my first class in digital history, so it definitely will be interesting. The manuscript I have chosen is stunning and I am very much looking forward to studying it further and revealing its Medieval secrets! My progress on this can be found/followed on my twitter account (or if you just want to enjoy some Medieval memes that’s cool too).