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 Unfortunately, art and craft have been replaced by machinery that spits out a commodity using the cheapest method possible.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.