Creating a 14th Century Manuscript: Call me a Faux Scribe

It is amazing how traveling down an arbitrary path can send you on a journey you never expect. While researching Middle English texts on the Internet, through some haze of click-frenzy madness, I ended up reading about the first English versions of the Bible. Up through the 14th century, significant portions of the Bible were available only in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Between c.a. 1382 and 1395 John Wycliffe and his followers translated the Latin Vulgate into English, which was considered a vulgar tongue. This translation of was not without controversy and led to Wycliffe being branded a heretic by the church. Just owning a copy of one of these translations could mean grave consequences for the owner.

There were two versions of the translated Bible, the earlier was translated during the life of Wycliffe, while the author of the later version is John Purvey, one of Wycliffe's followers. There are few existing copies of the earlier version, which is why I chose to reproduce this translation as a manuscript. This manuscript would be something that is not readily seen, even in a museum.

All of the Wycliffe translations through the 14th century are written documents copied from various sources. It appears that no two copies are the same illustrating the difficulty in reproducing books in the Middle Ages. The first challenge in creating a facsimile of this manuscript is the reproduction of the written script.

I examined several digital images of Wycliffe translations to get an idea of the shape and form of the script in use. While each manuscript differs slightly, they all employed the same basic style and structure in the written characters. Not having the skills (or time) to become a scribe, I used FontForge to create a font that emulates the characters in the manuscript.

A digital image of manuscript text from a Wycliffe translation of the Bible.

A digital image of manuscript text from a Wycliffe translation of the Bible.

Manuscript text from above reproduced using a custom font to emulate the script.

Manuscript text from above reproduced using a custom font to emulate the script.

The full version of the Wycliffe manuscript is available here.

Creating a 14th Century Manuscript: The Journey Begins

A new year always inspires a new project. I have two hobbies (or two things to spend money on according to my wife), photography, and bookbinding. In both cases, I study the historical methods and processes to learn how we created art and objects before the age of automation. Unfortunately, art and craft have been replaced by machinery that spits out a commodity using the cheapest method possible. Some artisans continue to employ art and craft in both photography and bookbinding in hopes of keeping the practices from becoming extinct. This dedication has led to a renaissance where people are returning to the historical methods to gain back the essence of what it means to produce a photograph or a book. Just look at the recent rise in the number of photographers returning to or embracing film photography.

In early times, society considered a book, or codex, a treasured item. Because books in this period were all created by hand, they were rare and expensive. This meant books were typically only within reach of the wealthy who could afford them. Since the printing press hadn't been invented, scribes had to write each page of a book by hand on parchment or paper called a manuscript. Obviously, this is a long and tedious task, and a large volume might take years to complete. In addition to the scribe, a limner would draw illuminated initials and artwork in the manuscript. Finally, a bookbinder gathers all of the folios created by the scribe and illuminator attaching them to a structure and ultimately forming a bound book.

This year I have decided to tackle creating a manuscript or a facsimile of a manuscript. The style and construction will be dependent on the text or document itself. Where possible, I want to adhere to the historical processes and materials as closely as possible. The goal here is to experience the process and understand what it took to create a book in the Middle Ages.

Most books produced in the Middle Ages were written in Latin, which I cannot read very well. Creating a book that I cannot ultimately read seems rather unproductive. Therefore, my first restriction is that the text must be written in English. For books written in the Middle Ages, that means Middle English. Of course, this immediately makes one think of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales as a source of the text.

Creating a Print Portfolio - The Design, Part 2

Today we will examine the remaining high-level goals I identified in the initial concept for my print portfolio. The remaining goals are as follows.

  •  Provide for the ability to easily update or replace prints
  •  Be easy to view without having to be at a desk

Providing for the ability to easily update or replace prints in my portfolio is crucial. I want a portfolio that is flexible and able to show work that caters to a specific audience. Showing landscape prints to someone interested in fine art still life images is not going to sell my still life work. Also, as new portfolio prints become available, I want to replace any potentially weaker prints with new ones. This keeps my portfolio fresh and up to date with my strongest work.

Having the ability to reorganize the portfolio eliminates the thought of printing my portfolio as a book, which is a popular option for some photographers. Thinking ahead, the easiest method for replacing prints is to put the print in a sleeve that fits into a binder system. However, I previously decided not to use sleeves or covers over the prints. This is a classic example of conflicts that arise when setting design goals. In this case, the desire to easily replace images could potentially conflict with my desire to show my work without interference. If this conflict cannot be rectified, I will have to choose which design goal is the most important.

Having a portfolio that is easy to view without having to be at desk directly effects the size of the portfolio. Large prints are stunning but imagine handing a 13" x 19" sized portfolio with forty prints to an art director that has just given you ten minutes of his or her time in the lobby. The portfolio would be large, unwieldy, and heavy and probably will not get the attention it deserves. I have decided to limit the portfolio size to 11" x 14" and since I never create a borderless print and use a standard margin of 1", the actual print size is always 9" x 12" or smaller. This is large enough to show fine detail, but not so large as to make the portfolio hard to view while holding it in your hands.

Combining these design goals with ones from our previous list gives us the following list.

  • Only monochrome prints
  • Display giclée or alternative prints
  • No plastic sleeves or covers
  • Allow prints to be reorganized and replaced, no book format
  • Portfolio size of 11" x 14"
  • Print size of 9" x 12" or smaller with 1" border

There are many more decisions to make, but this list gives me a good starting point. In the next article, we will look at how we are going to satisfy these goals.