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A season for manuscripts and memories

Now that we are in September and autumn is in the air, I thought I'd reflect on my journey to experience the processes of manuscript production. I have had a very rewarding summer. While my research stopped short of using fresh animal skins, the process of creating parchment from rehydrated goat and calf skin was an extremely tactile and fascinating experience. I also began my first steps into creating pigments from home-grown plants.

The summer harvest – parchment, feathers, galls and woad

My research very much operates from a pragmatic medieval viewpoint, using materials and ingredients that would have been easy to source or easy to procure in medieval England. I'm imagining manuscript production from a modest, early medieval religious house that didn't have unlimited resources, so would rely on the strengths of their natural surroundings. With this brief in mind, I'm very much focused on the process of manuscript production – the end result is almost a by-product (although don't get me wrong - I'm delighted when it turns out well!). But I'm not interested in producing the best or most beautiful parchment or pigment, I want to understand what it's like to be immersed in these creative processes. How does it feel, smell, sound? How does that close interaction with the natural product feed into your relationship with the final result? When I pick up a quill, I can remember the day I went to the reservoir and spent a peaceful afternoon collecting goose feathers. When I use my woad, I can remember the smell of the lavender as I aerated the mixture in the garden. When I use my ink, I call to mind long walks in my local woodland, my bag overflowing with galls and the fleeting terror as I realise I have lost my bearings yet again...

And, I think, all of those memories and experiences have to count for something. Those early religious houses that produced most, if not all, of the manuscript were creating what they believed to be literally the word of God, a sacred embodiment of Christianity. And on top of that, it was written on the skins of animals they had reared, with feathers collected from local geese and swans, and painted with colours harvested from plants they had grown. It must have been an incredibly close connection to their natural world, and hard to overstate what an unbelievably precious thing it must have been. And added to that, the communal memory, knowing that the codex was produced not just from their natural landscape, but by the hands of their fellow brothers or sisters, or those before them.

The process of making parchment is documented in medieval manuscripts, and remains largely unchanged. Although we don't know so much about the day-to-day business of parchmenters, such as the best time of year for them to work, I felt that working outside during the summer would make it a far more pleasant experience. In many ways, the lack of knowledge is freeing, as it allows me a chance to work things out without the pressure of centuries-old knowledge! Soaking and stringing up a skin is at least an afternoons work and – as I learnt to my cost – this is not something that can be hurried. I worked under a canopy, so the odd shower wasn't a problem, and also shaded the skin to prevent it drying out too quickly. Once the skin was stretched on the frame it needed to be scraped while still wet. This is the time when the skin is at its most flexible, and you can be really vigorous in your ministrations! Once the skin has dried out overnight and become taut, a little more care needs to be taken. It is such a joy to return to the skin the next day and to be able to tap on the stretched frame like a drum.

Goatskin stretching on a wooden frame

Next the skin needs to be scraped, and this is one of my favourite memories of the summer – being alone outside in the still of the afternoon, with the metallic ring of the lunellum blade striking the skin. There is something instantly calming about the methodical rhythm of scraping the membrane, and that skin-to-skin contact, constantly smoothing the surface, feeling your palm along the suede texture on one side and the almost glossy texture on the other. It's such a visceral experience – you can see the network of veins left in the imprint of the skin, see the colour of the hairs that have been missed, feel the denseness change from the neck to the belly, touch the scars and skin imperfections. It still speaks as well, when drying under tension the skin lets out snaps and pings as the skin contracts - still living, still possessing the space. Working with the skin, scraping and rubbing down means you feel it yield under your hand, grow more supple and pliant. This skin on skin contact, so important for us humans, and such a necessary part of our existence, still translates across from different species. And I wonder when working the skin - at what stage does the skin transition to parchment? Is it in the stretching, the scraping or the finishing? When does it stop being the outer membrane of an animal and when does it become a processed product, with a new purpose. Although the use of animal skin (particularly young animals) may seem cruel, animals slaughtered one or even two millennia ago live on through ancient manuscripts.

The Codex Sinaiticus (one of the earliest surviving bibles) is made of calf and sheep parchment

Next on the seasonal calendar was collecting goose and swan feathers, during the months of June and July. A trip to my local reservoir proved fruitful, with an abundant supply of freshly moulted feathers. This was in the period when the lockdown restrictions were being eased, and the impact of seeing a new horizon, with the sun glinting off the water, was an absolute balm to the soul. These feathers will need to dry out and harden over the winter, ready for making into quills next year.

Geese at Hanningfield Reservoir

The woad I planted out in April was ready to be harvested by the end of July. Taking my secateurs to the base of the plants, I gathered about 1kg of leaves. Then an amazing process of alchemy and filtering gradually revealed a deep indigo blue settled in a jar of clean water. Not the most vibrant of colours, granted - but a long-lasting colour nonetheless - created from a tiny seed grown in my garden, and good enough to have been used in early medieval manuscripts such as the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Making woad

Too soon it seems, the summer days shorten, and a perceptible change is in the air. But this also means that the wasp galls growing in their dark, woody cocoons are getting ready to chew their way out. Emerging in late August and September, they leave behind their spherical homes, cleaning off the sawdust and trying out their new wings. These galls can then be gathered from the oak branches and crushed into small pieces. Boiling the gall pieces in water releases the tannins, and fills the house with a sweet, woodland smell. The galls are then drained, and the remaining liquid mixed with ferrous sulphate and gum arabic, to create a smooth, unctuous black ink.

Marble oak wasp, galls and ink

And so for now, that is all the harvesting and gathering I can do for the year. But perhaps, for all my musings on how memories feed into a medieval mindset, it means nothing. My joy and delight at using home-grown and home-made materials might be adding a layer of meaning that doesn't exist. Perhaps a time-travelling medieval would be delighted to cast off the shackles of manual labour and would embrace print on demand technology, or downloadable PDFs. But the summer I have spent in the fresh air, interacting closely with my natural surroundings, using my hands to harvest ingredients and work animal skin, has given me an incredible sense of belonging, and an absolute appreciate of medieval processes. And when I look at a medieval folio I have made, on skin I have stretched, written with ink I have made, with quills that I have cut, and painted with colours that I grown - I feel such a profound, personal connection with that object, living again but under a new guise.

Sara Charles is a 'historical re-maker', recreating medieval manuscript production techniques to understand the practices of the past.

For those interested in more historical remaking, follow the twitter accounts of @JessieWHChen and @joumajnouna. For those interested in the physical aspects of parchment, see @SJLahey


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