Dipping Into Ink

By Carrie Griffin

I’ve recently been doing some work on late-medieval recipes that are connected to the production of the material text. I became interested in these short but absorbing instructions while writing a book on practical and instructional writing, in which I have included a chapter on recipes and instructions for ink-making, parchment-making, colour mixing, glue making and so on.[1] I was initially drawn to them because I noticed that a very technical word that is associated with such matters – “glair” – occurs in the Middle English dream-vision poem Pearl (l. 1026). It refers to the white of an egg when it is used as a binding medium for colours in manuscript illumination and decoration.[2] I wondered whether even an educated audience would have appreciated the meaning of this technical word, a term relating to the world of material book-production.

These compelling shorter texts are fantastic gateways into thinking about how the different layers of the construction of a book or document were imagined, as well as how the operated practically. It is important to consider how frequently book and documentary production happened, in the period from c. 1400, outside of the professional contexts of the guildhall and copy-shops like the London establishment run by the scribe and publisher John Shirley. In other words, these recipes facilitate home book production; their proliferation in English (and in other European vernaculars) from the beginning of the fifteenth-century point to more widespread interest in, if not actual instances of, domestic book-making and to the domestic construction of the materials needed to make up a booklet or book.

These recipes circulate in collections that are concerned with more than one aspect of the materials that are used to write, decorate and illustrate, but they can also occur in isolation–copied into blank spaces or on flyleaves–or sometimes in groups of two or three. One collection that I have examined in Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Douce 54, ff. 21v–31v) preserves approximately forty recipes for dyeing leather, making coloured water, preparing parchment, limning and writing on metal. The collection is introduced with the rubric: “Dowtles here may ye se al the thynges that longyth to a wryter yn al degreys”. One of the instructions offers a method to make a reddish ink that can be used to rule parchment or paper in preparation to write (in part modernised by me):

To make a good colour to rule with: take brazil & shave it well & small into a shell, & put therto new-made glair, & temper it some, & let it stand half a day. & take a little alum, but beware that thou put not over much […]. & [thou] can write therwith & it shall be good.

The recipe calls for brazil, or the reddish dye obtained from brazilwood, to be shaved mixed in a shell with glair. After half a day or so alum is added. The result is probably a dull reddish-brown colour that will be familiar to us from the sometimes clumsily-ruled folios of manuscripts from the later periods.

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The overwhelming sense that one gets from these recipes is that the substances used to make them were either made in household kitchens or could be obtained with relative ease.

Another fascinating instruction from the book of Robert Reynes of Acle (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Tanner 407) is one of perhaps ten recipes that tell the reader how to make red, blue, yellow, black and green inks, glue specifically “for bokys”, and other substances. It’s a good example of the extent to which time had to be measured in accurate ways in order for the substance to come together properly. Part of this instruction “For to make black ink” recommends the recitation of a psalm. It asks that the ingredients be gathered together and, once this is done, the ink-maker must “set them over the fire and let them stew the space of this psalm saying, miserere me Deus” (Psalm 51). The recitation of the psalm of course allows for the measurement time but it may also have had implications for the quality of the ink that was produced!

Other recipes of this nature that I have come across from this period confirm my sense that they are intended for interested and practiced readers, thus occupying an interesting space in documentary and bibliographical history. One instruction that I have examined for parchment-making asks that the reader deploy a “a fleshing knife, as these parchmenters use”, suggesting that there is distance between professionals and the readership of the recipe.[3]

The proliferation of these short texts in the commonplace books of the sixteenth century (Reynes, John Colyns, Humphrey Newton and others) suggests that they served a particular domestic function. More widely, as is the case with many recipes from the late-medieval and early modern periods, they are important gap-fillers, allowing us to illuminate aspects of quotidian attitudes and practices that are not always accessible or fully recoverable. And they widen our perspective about scribal culture in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, asking us to imagine a scribe engaged not just in copying but also in making his own materials.

I am happy to say that work on these fascinating texts is set to continue:  Michael Johnston of Purdue University and I plan to begin more sustained work on ink and related recipes – starting with the compilation of a handlist – in the near future.

 


[1] Instruction and Information from Manuscript to Print for Ashgate’s Material Reading in Early Modern Culture series (2014). See also Instruction and Information from Manuscript to Print: Some English Literature, 1400–1650, The Literature Compass 10.9 (2013): 667–66. URL: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/lic3.12087/abstract

[2] “The wal of jasper that glent as glayre”; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. A. C. Cawley (London: Dent, 1962), pp. 3–47.

[3] This instruction occurs in Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.14.45, p. 101.


2 thoughts on “Dipping Into Ink”

  1. Good morning:
    I was wondering, the course of your research, if you have come across any information about the use of urine in ink production? I am interested, in particular, in the use of boys’ urine in particular (some recipe’s are very specific about this), and I was wondering if perhaps a cow or man’s urine would be equally as effective?
    Thank you.
    Katelyn
    PhD Student, The University of Manitoba.

  2. HI Katelyn,

    I have to say that I haven’t yet come across recipes that call for this particular ingredient! I’d be happy to let you know if I do in the course of my work; can you send me an email? Best wishes, Carrie.

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