Off the Books

During my senior year of college, I took a course on the history of illuminated manuscripts in Medieval Europe. For the final exam grade for this course, we students had to describe an imaginary manuscript, with realistic details on who made it, what it contained, who commissioned it, and so on. For example, one could write about:
A hypothetical Bible, copied by an Irish monk, living on a rock in the middle of nowhere, hoping to avoid the notice of the Vikings.
An illustrated copy of a Roman quasi-historical text, created in a monastery by a team of monks, and paid for by a king who wanted to use his connection to the past to legitimize his rule.
A lavishly illustrated prayer book, made in a secular scribal establishment, paid for by a wealthy merchant who wanted to show off for a young second (or third) wife.
Sadly, I never completed this assignment. I changed my major from art, and had to drop the course to make time to take a more relevant class. Unlike the “more relevant” classes, though, I actually remembered what I’d learned in this one, and eventually put it to use in my fiction.
Before the invention of the printing press, books were hand-made and incredibly expensive. The pages were not paper as we know it; they were made of parchment or vellum, which are made from animal hide. And not just any animal hide; the younger the animal, the better, and the finest quality was uterine vellum: vellum made from the skin of an unborn calf (feel free to go “eew.” The rights of animals were not always a concern in the Middle Ages—after all, neither were the rights of women, children, religious non-conformists, and pretty much anyone except men of the ruling class always considered either, depending on time and location.) An unborn calf isn’t especially large, which limited the number and size of pages. Generally, one skin of velum was folded and trimmed to make a folio (that just means “fold”) of eight pages, each page smaller than that of your average modern paperback. Yes, you could cut larger pages (say, for a large Bible), but that would mean more skins and therefore more expense. Pages were stitched together, and bound between wooden covers, which would then be covered with substances ranging from leather to gold leaf and gems (depending on how much cash you wanted to lay out).
Before the cover went anywhere near the book, though, the pages had to be written and illustrated. After the vellum was prepared and trimmed, the first craftsperson would measure and mark out the spacing of the pages and lines, generally by cutting very fine lines in the vellum with a sharp knife (the marks are still visible on existing pages). Then the text itself would be copied out, as word-for-word as possible, from an original. Yes, mistakes happened, sometimes with hilarious (to me, anyway) results: somewhere in the deeps of time, someone copied corna which means “horns”, for corona, which means “halo,” in a description of Moses, and now hundreds of Catholic grandmas have in their homes a copy of a statue (by Michelangelo, no less) of Moses with little stubby horns on his head . . . .
But I digress. Text was only the beginning, because most people of the Middle Ages were illiterate, and they wanted books with pictures. Depending on how elaborate/expensive a book was, it could have colored inks, large decorative capitals at the start of chapters/paragraphs, full-page multi-colored illustrations, and, because it would be a gross waste of vellum to leave any bit of a page blank, little fiddly bits known as “drolleries” filling up the margins. Many drolleries were humorous, satirical, or just plain bizarre. Google “knights vs/ snails” or “hunters vs/ rabbits” for some examples. Look at Medieval drolleries long enough, and you will realize Monty Python did not actually make stuff up for that Holy Grail movie.
Again, I digress. The paintings, known as “illuminations,” both because of the light and beauty they contain and because they “illuminate” the meaning of the book to the illiterate, were made using rare and costly materials, such as ground lapis-lazuli for blue pigment, malachite for green, or gold and silver leaf for accents. The metal foil was put on after everything else on the page was complete, using a glue made of boiled rabbit skin—again, eew! By the late 1400’s, with the rise of the beginnings of a middle class in Europe, book production had moved out of being an exclusive domain of the clergy and become a commercial venture. A customer would come to a scriptorium to order a book made; cost would vary, depending on size, number of illustrations, how much gold leaf, and so on.
When I wrote my second Edward Red Mage mystery, I focused part of the plot on the professional scriptorium run by Eddie’s grandfather:
The widowed king of Belerin re-marries, and his bride receives a book of saint’s lives as a wedding gift. Suddenly, all the wealthiest noblewomen in the kingdom want their own copy, and the scriptorium employees work night and day to complete orders, each of them assigned to their own tasks, from the lowly apprentice responsible for adding curlicues at the end of a paragraph to Guy Sable, master illuminator, who creates full-page illustrations. When Guy disappears, leaving unfinished work and an angry note, is it due to his artistic temperament? Or are more sinister forces at work?
The only thing I’ll say here is that at least I finished that damned college assignment.

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