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Writing on Medieval Craftsmen: Scribes and Illuminators by Christopher de Hamel

I’m always researching new scenes and stories from the Middle Ages. I’m particularly keen on characters who are tradespeople, so I’m looking into information on the length of time it takes to do things in the Middle Ages (re-calibrating your plot is key here.) Today’s investigation is from:

Writing on Medieval Craftsmen: Scribes and Illuminators by Christopher de Hamel.
(italics in the following are mine)
“There is evidence of monastic manuscript-making projects extending over years, and doubtless it was often very much a part-time occupation. An eleventh-century (1000AD) monastic scribe, in no great haste, might achieve three or four moderate-sized books a year. A professional scribe, however, working for a commercial bookshop in the fifteenth century (1400s), was paid by the job and not by the hour. There are manuscripts in which the scribe announces at the end that the work was started and finished
in a matter of days. The Renaissance scribe Giovanni Marco Cinico, who mostly worked in Naples 1458-98, boasted that he wrote full-length manuscripts in fifty-two or fifty-three hours, and he was nicknamed Velox, speedy. Perhaps a Book of Hours might usually be written out within a week, and the miniatures might well be executed at the rate of two or three a day. A professional artisan who knows his job and repeats it throughout a lifetime can often work extremely fast.” (pg. 7)

Here’s a great scene:

“The parchmenter is scraping last week’s skins while this week’s supply is soaking in vats in the shed. Fresh quills are drying out while the scribe is writing with earlier stock. The illuminator during a lunch break checks on the infusions of next week’s pigments in the pantry. Certain devices for speeding the process further were evolved during the centuries, culminating at last in the invention of printing around 1450.” Pg. 7

Another great scene/vivid detail:

“Sometimes too one can see tree-like vein marks on parchment, the result of blood in the skin when the animal died (this ought to be more common in pelts from hunted animals, like deer, than from those killed and bled in a butcher’s shop, but it is difficult to know how to set about proving it.) If the flaws were too rough and pronounced and yet the scribe decided to use the sheet nonetheless, a ring may have been drawn around the blemish and the scribe’s subsequent writing parts like the Red Sea to flow around it. On big pages one can sometimes detect denser ridges where the backbone transected the skin and perhaps on one edge one may observe (aided perhaps by imagination) the scalloped curve which was the neck of the animal.” (pg. 15)

“Until the twelfth century, most manuscripts were ruled in drypoint, that is, with blind lines scored with a stylus or back of the knife…Oblong pieces of lead have been excavated scribed with names like ROGERII and KAROLI SCRIPTORIS in the 13th or 14th century capitals, and are probably plummet markers for just such purposes as ruling manuscripts.” Pg. 23

“No facsimile can ever give the tactile experience of handling and running one’s fingers across soft leaves of medieval parchment. Even the smell is quite different from that of paper, and in fact varies enormously with manuscripts from one country to another. Within moderation, a bit of handling is said to be good for manuscripts because parchment, like leather, responds well to movement and can lose suppleness if untouched for centuries.” Pg. 13 (Love that one could tell where a book came from by its smell!)
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