"The Medieval Scribe "

April 2009 Meeting Report

Speaker - Vic Hughes

The April 2009 meeting of the Keyworth & District Local History Society was held in the Centenary Lounge Keyworth. A well-attended meeting had come to hear Vic Hughes give a presentation on ‘The Medieval Scribe’. The meeting began on a sad note when a minute’s silence was held in respect for Rod Gill, the Society’s well-liked and much respected Vice-Chairman, who died suddenly last month. His untimely death has deprived the Society of a valued member and his wife, family and friends of a remarkable and wonderful person. On a lighter note the Society’s chairman was able to report to the meeting that the team representing the History Society in the Keyworth Village Quiz had exceeded all expectations and reached the final of the competition only to lose to a very strong team from the Methodist Church.

The presentation from Vic was of a slightly different nature to that which the members were more used to. Instead of a slide show / talk format or straightforward talk Vic had arranged no less than six tables full of artefacts relating to his talk. Vic began by relating to Sumeria, where writing is generally accepted to have originated. Vic then went on to relate how there was city in Mesopotamia called Isin, ruled by a king named Ishme Dagan. King Ishme Dagan ruled from 1889 to 1871 B.C. and during his reign ordered the erection of a new temple to honour his gods. To mark the occasion the King had a time capsule inserted into one of the temple walls. This capsule had, written upon it, details relating to the King. This was important because, whilst ever the King was remembered, he would have eternal life. From amongst the artefacts on the tables Vic produced this capsule, which was in the form of a clay tablet inscribed with the details relevant to the King. As Vic pointed out, by the very nature of the fact that we were talking about the King we were also remembering him and thus ensuring that he continued to enjoy life eternal!

Vic’s next item was a relatively innocuous looking piece of clay inscribed with the details relating to the loan of two-thirds of a silver shekel made out to a person called Cezea. It would seem that a farmer named Cezea took out a loan for that amount from his local temple. The clay tablet was the receipt for that loan. Vic said that he would love to be able to meet Cezea today, present him with the tablet and ask for the return of his two-thirds of a silver shekel!

Vic then went on to explain about the Cuneiform writing that had originated in Sumeria. The writing was usually done on clay tablets using a reed or quill (called a ‘stylus’). This left a vee or wedge shaped indentation in the clay, hence the term ‘cuneiform’ from the Latin cuneus which means wedge. This writing first appeared some 30 Centuries B.C. and it is interesting to note that translations from it refer to many incidents that are recorded in the Holy Bible. References have been translated referring to such incidents as Noah and the Great Flood.

The next stage of Vic’s narrative related to the ancient Egyptians and the invention of papyrus as a medium for writing on. As with earlier generations reeds were still used as a stylus. After that the Chinese invented a type of paper made from mulberry. Neither of these mediums found any favour in the Western world. In Europe parchment and vellum became the norm, both of which are of a very durable nature. To prove this Vic displayed some writing on both vellum and parchment, which were almost 1,000 years old. The ink on these items was made using oak-galls. These have a very high tannin content. The galls are placed in water and boiled long enough for about half of the liquid to boil away. Other substances are then added to colourize the solution.

The next great advance came around 1450 with the advent of printing at Haarlem in Holland using carved, wooden blocks for the typeface. Until this technological advance books were incredibly rare items since all had to be hand-written. Writing in the early medieval age was restricted almost exclusively to the clergy; even kings and queens were illiterate. When King John famously ‘signed’ Magna Carta at Runnymede he did not put his signature at the bottom of the document, (that was impossible because he could not write), instead he ‘signed’ the document with his ‘Great Seal’. Since all books were written by hand it took a long time to produce one, and logically this incurred considerable expense especially if the book was ‘illuminated’ with decorative writing and pictures. In 1420 Lincoln Cathedral had one of the largest libraries in England with 109 books in it! By the 15th Century royalty, the nobility, and some of the merchant classes were beginning to be literate. For the lower or ‘working’ classes literacy is a relatively modern phenomena. Even as late as the mid-Victorian age much of the population could neither read nor write.

With the advent of printing there, naturally, occurred a huge increase in the demand for a medium for printing onto. Parchment and vellum, being animal based, became increasingly difficult to obtain. This led to the development of ‘rag’ based papers. This, in conjunction with printing, led to a huge increase in the number of books that were produced.

Vic then went on to show how other materials came to be used by our medieval scribe. Amongst these was ‘horn’ taken from animals such as sheep and cattle. Methods of preparing the horn were developed which allowed the horn to be used for a variety of purposes. One of the earliest forms of spectacles had lenses made from horn, this being a great boon for those scribes that had eyesight problems.

Vic then went on to give a short history of the quill pen. Firstly he showed what a quill pen did not look like. The quill pen which he showed that still had all its feathers on did not exist outside of the film industry! All quill pens had the feathers removed from them. An indispensable item to have with the quill pen was a ‘pen’ knife. This was necessary to keep the end of the quill sharp and thus maintain the quality of the writing. The knife was usually fairly small but invariable very sharp. It would be in constant use. A scribe may use as many as sixty quills a day, swan and goose being the preferred birds. The female, or ‘pen’ birds being considered to having the best feathers for such use. Hence the derivation of the word ‘pen-knife’ for sharpening the quills. Another indispensable item would be the inkbottle or inkwell. All of these items were attached to the belt of the medieval scribe; pockets had not yet become a feature to be found on clothing.

Another important item for the medieval scribe was the candle. Without a decent source of light it would be impossible for the scribe top operate without daylight. Beeswax provided the source of the best candles; it burnt brightly and gave off the least smoke. Tallow, made from animal fat, was cheaper but gave off a greater amount of smoke. Oil lamps were also used and these had been in existence for centuries. During his presentation Vic made references to many of the other items that were displayed on the six tables and all found an interested audience. When the presentation was complete Vic invited the members of the audience to view the items and, if they desired, to ask him any questions that they liked relating to the artefacts. All in all Vic gave an excellent talk, his obvious enthusiasm for his subject was infectious and the Society’s members were provided with an excellent night’s entertainment and education.