Learning the Parchmenter’s Craft

We made our own parchment – during a unit on limp parchment bindings in my Historical Book Structures course at the UI Center for the Book [Spring 2018]. For an overview of the process, see my previous post on parchment making. Bill Voss [UI Book Conservation Lab] and I had collaborated on this a couple times before, learning the parchmenter’s craft through a bit of reading, advice, and fresh skins from premier parchmenter, Jesse Meyer. Through repeated trial and error the process is getting faster and more streamlined. We made a couple of stretching frames and pegs in our previous attempts, which are clumsy to keep tight and to string up – so this time around Bill suggested tying up the wet goat skins while it was laying flat on the table, then stringing it up on the frame with ties already in place [rather than trying to do this directly on the stretching frame]. This worked well and saved a lot of time.


I wanted to have time during a class period for students to experience the full parchmenter’s practice [starting with a de-fleshed, de-haired, wet skin]. So I had one wet skin ready to be strung up and stretched, and one dry skin [already stretched] ready to be scraped and sanded. It was February in Iowa, so wet work was done indoors [above] where it was warm, to allow for longer working and drying time [usually dry within a few hours under normal temperature and humidity]. Dry scraping and sanding of the stretched skin was done out of doors [below], since it is a faster process [to get a suitable sheet for parchment covers] and is quite dusty. We used Bill’s lunarium, and a palm sander with various grits of sand paper from rough to fine.



During the wet work, a couple of students were interested in parchment repairs, so they sewed up a hole in the wet skin. Holes are repaired to keep them from getting bigger when the skin is stretched. Holes were often not sewn closed, leaving telltale circular openings in the final parchment sheet. These were sometimes used creatively, the shape incorporated into figurative penwork or embroidered for decorative effect. Taking the parchment from wet skin to final dry sheet is a great experience, since it provides a deeper understanding of historical parchment production and use and gives insight into the range of parchment qualities one sees in medieval and early modern books. For example, the image below shows a evidence of parchmenter’s repair on the cover of a limp parchment binding from Tuscany, Italy, 1471 [Newberry Library, VAULT Case 152].


Here the user didn’t shy away from using the part of the sheet with a sewn repair or a less than perfect sheet. This is often the case with the parchment used for limp and semi-limp covers, and suggests that medieval and early modern parchmenters were selling a range of sheet materials, graded by thickness, color, surface quality, level of defect or irregularity. The parchment used for the outside of a binding was durable and thicker than what you would find on the folios of a fine book of hours for example – and the bookbinders were looking for something durable and generally did not need a blemish-free product. Medieval and early modern parchmenters understood their product, and scribes and bookbinders did too. Parchment was the standard sheet material [for interior quires] in Europe until the late 15th c., when it began to compete with paper. Though papermaking had been made in Europe for centuries, production really ramped up by the early 1500s in an effort to keep up with the demands of early printers. Parchment did not disappear in the 16th century. It continued to be used for high end manuscripts, liturgical books, specialized administrative documents – and increasingly for the covers of books in the form of limp, semi-limp and stiff parchment bindings.


So, the parchmenter’s process is straightforward, but labor intensive, and requires skill to make a fine product. Basically, the wet skin is strung up on a frame, scraped, tightened, scraped, tightened [repeat], until sufficiently stretched, then dried, scraped or sanded – creating was Chris Clarkson called a ‘high tension sheet material.’ When both our sheets were dry, I cut them down from the frame, then cut the skin into widths to distribute to students to put on their own limp parchment bindings [look for future post on these]. I will be teaching a historical methodology course with Dr. Heather Wacha at the Newberry Library in April 2019, on codicology and medieval and early modern book history. We’ll be making parchment, looking at a bunch of old books, and learning how they were produced 500 years ago. Check it out!


Multispectral Imaging Team Visits Iowa – with Stains on Their Minds!

CLIR postdoctoral fellows Erin Connelly, Alberto Campagnolo, Heather Wacha, and multispectral imaging guru Mike Toth

A team of medievalists and multispectral photography specialists visited U.Iowa in December to image some of our medieval manuscripts for their Stains Alive project [#StainAlive]. The project aims to create a library of stains found in medieval manuscripts in order to identify some of the smudges, splotches, spots that are so common in well-used 600 year old books. This info will help us understand how these medieval books were used and by whom. The project is explained and illustrated here: https://labeculaevivae.wordpress.com and states its goals:

The Library of Stains project aims to gather scientific data, drawn from stains found on parchment, paper, and bindings in medieval manuscripts.  This data will provide a new way for researchers, conservators, librarians, and the public to access information concerning the material makeup of medieval manuscripts, their medieval uses, and new approaches for modern studies.

The Mellon Foundation is funding the project to support innovative research by CLIR [Council for Library and Information Resources] postdoctoral fellows in Data Curation for Medieval Studies Heather Wacha [UW Madison], Erin Connelly [Penn] and Alberto Campagnolo [Library of Congress]. With multispectral imagining expert Mike Toth, they photographed over 100 medieval manuscripts [including many alchemical texts] at their institutions and added U.Iowa on to their tour! Giselle Simon and Beth Stone of the UI Book Conservation Lab were on hand at the Library’s One Button Studio to handle the books – which included liturgical manuscripts, administrative books, and works of history.


Spectrum of light captured in multispectral imaging [analytik.ltd]
The multispectral imaging process involves photographing the manuscript folios/pages with several different wavelengths of light – from ultraviolet to infrared. Each wavelength picks picks up different details from the manuscript’s surface, sometimes capturing ink and stains that have penetrated into the surface of the parchment or paper that may be invisible to the naked eye. It is also used to detect the presence of metals or

other organic compounds present in pigments and inks, and the resulting images allow conservators and historians to identify certain pigments in manuscript paintings. Once the spectrum of images is captured, they are digitally processed, selected, and united to form a single image that pulls out details not visible to the naked eye [not all images are needed or desired for optimal imaging of certain details under study].

Since parchment was expensive, it was commonly scraped down for reuse in the middle ages – texts came and went, but the material remained valuable to bookbinders and scribes. The process of erasing parchment with writing on it by scraping and sanding is called ‘palimpsesting’ – the parchment is a palimpsest. Palimpsests can be ‘recovered’ through multispectral imaging, which renders the hidden texts visible to the naked eye. This is how Mike Toth and a team of researchers, conservators and historians [including Will Noel] revealed the secrets of the Archimedes Palimpsest, a parchment book whose palimpsest contained lost works of ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes [see Noel’s TED Talk here]. The process holds great promise for revealing hidden texts – and telling us about the full contents of the manuscript page – its texts, stains, pigments/colors, visual composition [by analyzing underdrawing on manuscript painting], etc.. Can’t wait to see what the Stains team comes up with!

 Melissa Moreton


UI Special Collections Librarian Colleen Theisen shows the team a parchment book cover filled with stains and text

My Material Analysis Course: Exploring Medieval Manuscripts Across Cultures

My fall 2017 course, Material Analysis: Medieval Manuscripts Across Cultures, ended on a high note with my students [a mix of grad and undergrads] completing an impressive range of high level final projects! The course explores manuscripts [books, scrolls, etc.] from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and examines their material aspects [book materials, structure, composition, production techniques, etc.] to connect them to a larger cultural production of objects. The course has ‘medieval’ in the title largely to catch students’ interest – ‘medieval’ is powerful catchword in our current age of Game of Thrones, but it can’t really be applied to cultures outside Europe. In reality, the course examines manuscript culture across the wide pre-modern world. Over the course of the semester we examined and handled over 75 rare books and manuscripts from UI Special Collections [Christian, Buddhist and Islamic texts from Europe, Asia, Africa and Middle East], made parchment and paper by hand, and learned about the basics of how to analyze the material aspects of books. We asked and answered these questions: How were books made in the period? What are the similarities and differences in book materials and production techniques used across cultures? What types of texts were common and how were they used? How can a knowledge of book production inform the reading of texts and images and how can it shape an understanding of the place of books across cultures?  I’m super proud of the work my students accomplished this semester, and I highlight some of their final projects here.

Grace Chamberlain Recording Daily Office from UI xMMs.Br2 Fall 2017 Material Analysis
Chamberlain during the midnight recording of Vigils, drawn from the Daily Office in the late 15th-c. UI breviary [xMMs.Br2]
Grace Chamberlain [MA in Library Science/ Center for the Book] recorded one entire day of the Daily Office, using the U.Iowa’s Cistercian breviary [xMMs.Br2]. The late 15th-c. manuscript is from a Cistercian nunnery in southwestern Germany [Constance, Switzerland], and was used by the nuns to enact the monastic daily rounds of prayers, chants and readings that would have been practiced eight times throughout the 24-hour day. Chamberlain has always been intrigued by female monastic life and devotional objects, and is a podcast evangelist, so the breviary was the perfect object for her to build an audio project around. She chose a feast day to enact, using the manuscript’s liturgical calendar – settling on the Feast of Saint Cecilia, a feast day in November that allowed her to record the 24 hour cycle of prayers, hymns, readings, and lessons over the fall break. Saint Cecilia’s day fell on a Wednesday in 2017 – and was also on a Wednesday in 1476, the time it was in use in the late 15th century, making her 2017 enactment of the Daily Office particularly appropriate. The recording will hopefully be published in podcast form, making it available to a wide audience.


The Daily Office was/is celebrated 8 times a day by monastics and pious lay people, using breviaries, psalters, and books of hours. Chamberlain noted that each hour has a theme, that is reflected in the gospel readings, lessons, prayers and hymns recited and chanted at that hour [see below]. Observance varies depending on the time, place, and religious order in observance, but generally includes [Feast with a vigil can also begin on the previous day at Vespers]:

Vigils: midnight [theme: the Second Coming, or theme of the Feast]
Lauds: 3am or dawn [theme: Praise and Resurrection]
Prime: 6am [theme: Preparation for day’s work]
Terce: 9am [Invitation to Holy Ghost]
Sext: Noon [theme: Sin]
None: 3pm [theme: Perseverance]
Vespers: dusk/ 5 or 6pm depending on time of year [theme: Thanksgiving]
Compline: 7 or 8am [theme: Contrition and Protection for the night]

Chamberlain did a tremendous amount of research using the manuscript to figure out how many lessons, prayers, hymns would have been celebrated on St. Cecilia’s day by the Cistercian nuns, and how many masses would have been held. This information was drawn from the Calendar page and the folios outlining celebrations for minor saints. The abbreviated Latin in the Calendar [detail above] states that St. Cecilia was a virgin and martyr, to be celebrated with 12 lessons and one commemorative mass. Since the texts are in Latin, and she wanted the recording to be accessible to a wide audience [not just Latin readers], Chamberlain found English translations of all the prayers, lessons, and gospel readings, and sourced recordings of the Latin hymns [with some help from Father Stephen at New Melleray Abbey in Dubuque]. The result was a stunning audio log of the nun’s celebration of a medieval feast day, vividly bringing to life this medieval manuscript and the devotional acts that shaped the rhythms of monastic life 500 years ago. Her written report, a supplement to the podcast recording, highlighted the value of experiential learning in accessing these medieval texts in new ways – I couldn’t agree more!


Rhiannon unrolling the scroll containing the Poem of 1,000 Characters

Rhiannon Bell [MFA Center for the Book] did an extensive research project on an early Chinese scroll in UI Special Collections [xPL1115.C492], using her Chinese language skills to help decode the text. The catalogue record dated the scroll, the Poem of a Thousand Characters, to the 17th century – but based on her expertly conducted research Bell actually re-dated the scroll to the late 20th century and determined that it was a reproduction of the original, now in the Shanghai Museum. This took a careful examination of the material aspects of the scroll, research into 20th-century reproduction methods, the Cultural Revolution, and a knowledge of Chinese calligraphy and stamps. After this project, she’s ready for a job at Sotheby’s!



Gene Hill [BA, English] recreated iron gall inks, using medieval and early modern recipes. Hill donned his wizard hat and gave a overview of the iron gall recipes, their chemistry, processes, raw ingredients, and the trials and successes of creating these inks using historical processes. Basic ingredients include: iron, tannic acid from oak galls [wasp-produced balls that grow on oak trees], gum arabic [binder], and wine. Seven recipes were used, tested with a quill pen on paper and also a parchment scrap [see below]. He became so engrossed in this project that he began sourcing oak galls from a tree outside the UI library! Who knew?! Hill’s report also discussed the challenge of finding a good balance between the iron content [too little and you don’t get rich blacks – too much and the ink eats through paper], and gum arabic [too little and your ink won’t stay on the page – too much and it cracks and whole letters fall away]. It was a great example of the value of experiential learning – doing it was a fun and engaging way of understanding medieval chemistry, scribal practice, and modern conservation practice [which is often faced with dealing with the fallout from inks that were poorly made 600 years ago]!


Chris Taylor [MA Library Science/ Center for the Book] created a digital project, mapping unicorn watermarks across medieval Europe by mining the data on this particular watermark from the Bernstein watermark archive. With this project, Taylor has laid important ground work for future digital projects working with watermark datasets. This exercise, as he observed, was as important for what the process revealed as about the final product [an interactive digital map]. The project, its aims, observations, and conclusions can be explored hereScreen Shot 2018-01-06 at 11.32.35 PM


Triston Kanode [MA Library Science/ Center for the Book] made a model/ copy of a late 12th-century/ early 13th-century Abbasid scroll, the original of which is in St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, Egypt. The decree, issued by the brother of Sala-al-din, gives permission for the orthodox Christian monks of St. Catherine’s to remain peacefully at the monastery, though the land was under Muslim rule:

We have ordered to treat the monks of the aforementioned monastery according to their old-established custom and to leave them to follow their long-settled and agreed rules, and to accord to them protection, guarding, safe-keeping and defence; to prevent people from doing them harm or from intending damage against them, or from transgressing by changing their current customs, or from proceeding to render unsafe the road which is used for visits to them; and that the Bedouins, or for that matter anyone else, whether of the same religion as they or not, be kept from oppressing them or forcing them to relinquish the rules according to which they have been treated; and that visitors to them from Syria be not interfered with in any manner of harm or damage.

Kanode unfurls his model of the 16+ foot Abbasid decree

Though the project recreated an 800-year old object, it was quite topical. The St. Catherine monks are currently struggling with Islamic extremists who are challenging their rights to their property and freedom of movement – the monks should publish this text and demonstrate the long history of co-existence of Christians and Muslims in north Africa! Triston was intrigued by the material aspects of the scroll, which was over 16 feet long and written in Arabic in a large calligraphic script with luxurious wide spacing between lines. He used Islamic paper [made at the UI Center for the Book] and printed the Arabic decree onto sheets and then glued them together to form the scroll. In his presentation he connected the ostentatious length of the scroll and height of the script to displays of power and authority demonstrated by the ruling Abbasid government. The text of the decree conveyed the authority of the ruler, but the length of the scroll and the spacious calligraphic script also did so.


Smith presenting on the UI Pharsalia [xMMs.Hi1]
Echo Smith [PhD Classics] presented her research on our UI copy of the Pharsalia [Lucan’s De bello civili], the Roman civil wars [xMMs.Hi1]. Our manuscript is pretty special, having been copied out in 1465 in a handsome Humanist script – complete with marginal commentary and notes – by 13-year old budding Humanist in Pistoia, Italy, Tommaso Baldinotti. Smith, as a Classics scholar, was interested in the both the Latin texts [main text, commentary, interlinear gloss] and Tommaso’s scribal practice and made some important discoveries about this manuscript. Baldinotti’s marginal commentary drops off after Book III. This coincides with other copies made in the period, which appear to have used a commentary text authored by Arnulf of Orleans, Glosule super Lucanum. Smith demonstrated that Tommaso copied out the main text and Arnulf’s commentary  – and that he also personalized his copy with interlinear notes in Latin, providing glossed synonyms for Latin words he was unfamiliar with. Tommaso’s creation of this book was an exercise in learning how to be a proper Humanist scholar, learning a standard Classical text, learning Latin, and practicing his scribal skills. He did a superb job and Smith’s observations have shed new light on how this book was created and used in late 15th-century Italy.

Smith showing a fellow student the commentary in the UI Pharsalia [xMMs.Hi1]


shanama f.44b
UI Shahnama, f.44b [xMsF522 sh]
shahnama f.398b
UI Shahnama, f.398b [xMsF522 sh]
Alexis Beucler [MFA Painting] completed a study of the palette used in the UI’s 16th-century Shahnama, the Persian Book of Kings [xMsF522 sh], an epic poem written and compiled some time between the late 10th and early 11th centuries. The manuscript contains over 50 beautifully painted illustrations depicting the epic tales of the Kings/Shahs, their drama, loves, battles – and recounts important stories regarding the early history of Iran, Zoroastrianism and the Sassanid rulers.

Boucler’s interest, as an artist, was in the stories and their depiction by these 16th-century painters – and in particular their color palette and stylistic typologies. How were leaves drawn and painted? Fire? Animals? Mountains? Plants and flowers? She created a typological library of details and recreated the palette using historical medieval pigments and new synthetic colors.

shahnama f.141a
UI Shahnama, f.141a [xMsF522 sh] with details of flames and flowers
Screen Shot 2018-01-07 at 2.56.56 PM
UI Shahnama, f.289a [xMsF522 sh] with details of plants and flowers
Beucler then recreated the pigment palette, and original artwork [landscape painting and carousel book – below] using the Shahnama’s vivid palette and glossary of forms. She said that working on this project has had a big impact on her painting practice and direction of her creative work.


Carla DeWit [MA Library Science/ Center for the Book] did a compelling in-depth comparative study of two UI missals – xfMMs.Miss1 a massive missal produced in southern Italy c.1400 in Abruzzo, Italy [below left] and xMMs.Miss2, a hand-held missal [Italian] from the 15th century [below right]. DeWit created a full catalogue record for these manuscripts, recording the material aspects of the books and a full textual description and analysis of the missals’ contents.  Her level of textual description and identification was superb and through this project she has developed a specialized skill set for rare books and manuscripts cataloguing [technical training for librarians – hurrah!] – as well as gaining a lot of confidence in analyzing and assessing liturgical manuscripts – a notoriously complex and intimidating task. Her careful creation of a full manuscript description/ catalogue record forced her [as these exercises do!] to consider these objects in their full material and textual glory – and provided a unique understanding of how these manuscripts were produced and used over the last 600 years. One basic observation was the difference in size between these two missals – xMMs.Miss2 on the right is a hand-held size typical of missals – books used by priests for the enactment of the Catholic mass. The giant missal on the left [xMMs.Miss2] takes 2 people to move! It was a special commission by Count Ruggiero II of Celano, meant to commemorate the monastery that he entered, the Convent of Castelvecchio Subequo, in the Abruzzo region of southern Italy. The book also honored his family and demonstrated their wealth as patrons – his coat of arms were painted on the first page and his death in 1387 is commemorated in the missal’s calendar. Size matters, and DeWit noted that the large size of this missal would have been as impressive in 1400 as it is today. It took over 150 animals [sheep, etc.] to produce parchment skins for this 300+ folio missal! That’s not to mention, the scribal work, painting, rubrication, and binding. The bindings/covers below were rebound by UI book conservators Gary Frost [left] and Bill Anthony [right], but they would have had full leather, tooled covers.

FrontCover 00Front_cover

Victorian initial ‘R’ on a 15th-c. Italian missal [xMMs.Miss2]
DeWit noted that she took to heart the words of liturgical manuscripts scholar Andrew Hughes ‘there is no short cut to the careful perusal of the rubrics’ [must be said in a British accent]! Rubrics can refer to the red letters in manuscripts, or to colored initials in general. The rubrics and decorated capitals allow the reader to quickly find sections of interest in a book – in this case, for use by the priest who needs to access these texts for the mass. DeWit carefully perused the rubrics, then identified each Latin incipit – from her knowledge of the Catholic mass, using Hughes or the online database of incipits Brepols’ In Principio [available through the UI library databases]. Through this process, she determined the small missal held texts only for the mass at Advent and Christmas [so only a segment of the full year’s celebrations] – and that the painted capitals were actually added in the late 19th century, likely by an enthusiastic Victorian owner who wanted the book’s blank spaces to be filled in with the proper initials, in a ‘medieval’ style.

Carefully perused rubrics and decorated initials in the large UI missal xMMs.Miss1, c.1400, Abruzzo, Italy. f. 299v


Sheppard selecting incunables with printers’ marks in UI Special Collections

Margaret Sheppard [PhD English] created an online archive of printers’ marks from a dozen incunables in the UI Special Collections, using Omeka and Canva. Printers’ marks were the printed logos or page designs used by printers of early printed books [1450-1500] to identify their print shop and production. Sheppard challenged the idea that the marks were empty paratexts, with little significance. Instead she demonstrated that they have regional styles, and make use of iconography and imagery that often echoed the name of the printer, print shop neighborhood, and region. She also charted how many incunables from major printing cities [such as Paris and Venice] appear to have used printers’ marks – a survey that suggests printers in large cities with active printing markets were more likely to have developed and used printers’ marks in order to remain visible in a highly competitive market. This project presents some compelling results, even with this small dataset – and I look forward to seeing the survey once it is expanded to a encompass a larger number of printers’ marks.

Melissa Moreton


Revealing the Secrets of an Early Coptic Manuscript – Morgan Library MS M.910

PML M.910 last folio

Scanning the original M.910 at the Pierpont Morgan Library [https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/05/science/biblical-codes-morgan-library.html
I recently made a model/ prototype of a Coptic manuscript from the Pierpont Morgan Library [MS M.910], containing the Acts of the Apostles, written in Sahidic Coptic some time after the fifth century [the Copts are Egyptian Christians]. The original manuscript was scanned by digital unwrapping guru from the University of Kentucky, Brent Seales, and a team including philologist and religious scholar Paul Dilley [U. Iowa], and book conservator Maria Fredericks [Pierpont Morgan Library]. Here is the New York Times article about the project. The tripartite collaboration began early last year, out of meetings that happened in conjunction with the Mellon Sawyer Seminar I ran as a postdoc fellow, ‘Cultural and Textual Exchanges: The Manuscript Across Premodern Eurasia’, held at the University of Iowa.

Holding a model of the charred, 2,000 year old, En-Gedi scroll in my hand – a tiny thing! photo: M. Moreton

Seales visited Iowa in February 2017 to present his research on digital unwrapping of the ancient Hebrew En-Gedi scroll [50-100 CE] and preliminary work on ancient Roman Herculaneum papyri which date to the mid 1st c. CE or earlier. They were both written on papyrus [a sheet material made of the reed plant] and rolled up for storage, only to be charred and fused together 2,000 years ago. These ancient charred scrolls cannot be opened without permanent damage [many have tried with the scrolls from Herculaneum’s libraries], and cannot be read with the naked eye [they are charcoal black, turd-like objects]. Seales revolutionary approach to imaging these objects is described in this 2016 NY Times article and involves scanning them using x-ray tomography, and processing the data using a complex computerized algorithm [Seales’ Volume Cartography software], then reconstructs them in a process Seales calls ‘digital unwrapping’. For a look at this process, see Seales Mellon Sawyer lecture here.

The En-Gedi scroll, digitally unwrapped [photo: https://nyti.ms/2k4etJp]
Scanning the 2,000 year old En-Gedi scroll was an early attempt at testing this system and was fantastically successful, revealing a legible scroll section containing the oldest known copy of the Book of Leviticus! Scrolls / rolls are generally only written on one side, which allowed Seales to perfect his scanning and data processing without the complication of sorting out ink on both sides of the sheet material. The Seales team has perfected this system over the last few years, and were ready to take it to the next level – imaging a codex, which contains sheet material written on both sides – a more complicated data processing challenging.

Paul Dilley, philologist and scholar of Coptic and Manichaean manuscripts, suggested that Morgan M.910 might be a good candidate for this. Maria Fredericks, the Drue Heinz Book Conservator at the Morgan, agreed to consider the project and start the process of inquiry. The manuscript will be scanned at the Morgan in December 2017, and data processed in the following months. I will be posting more on this once the images are complete.

Unlike the earlier charred papyrus scrolls, M.910 is written on parchment [animal skin] and contains a known text, the Acts of the Apostles [companion to the Gospel of Luke], a text authored in the late first century and copied out by the Copts. The manuscript is too fragile to be opened and is unreadable due to the water and heat damage it has suffered. The manuscript is also extremely warped, with a wave-like shape to the sheets – which is common with water and heat damaged parchment. All of these factors make it a good test case for perfecting data processing for parchment codex, and working out how to digitally separate and ‘flatten’ the writing on each folio.

Before scanning the original manuscript, the Seales team needed a prototype model to make sure the manuscript would fit in the custom-fit stand and the scan would work – this is the model I made using new parchment and scribed with iron gall ink. The x-ray tomography detects the presence of iron in the iron gall ink, so I needed to source iron gall ink for my model – and learn how to write in ancient Coptic using the Sahidic Coptic alphabet!


Super thin parchment skins from Jesse Meyer – a mix of goat, deer, calf

Much had to be approximated in recreating the original manuscript, since it had been water damaged and has suffered from the heat of the Egyptian desert [I think there may still be sand in the original binding!]. The manuscript is multi-dimensional [not a perfect block], so I went with the largest dimension 12.5 x 14.5 with a 5mm spine width. Usually when I make models of historical book structures, I’m not trying to replicate exact quire structure or collation [the number of bi-folia per gathering/ quire], so this was a difficult exercise, made especially challenging because it is impossible to replicate sheet material thickness and guess how thick it will be or how it will behave once it’s gathered into quires and sewn. We ordered super thin parchment from Jesse Meyer of Pergamena, scraped and sanded to as close as possible to the thickness of .13 mm. I requested a variety of skins for the job, goat, deer and calf. Each has a different look and feel. I measured and trimmed the large parchment skins to size, trying to maximize the number of bi-folia I could get out of each skin. I needed about 13 quires [gatherings of bi-folia], so finished the book block with a thick paper when I ran out of parchment. I punched 4 sewing stations [holes for sewing] for each quire using a jig, punching cradle, and awl – and sewed each quire with a simple tacket to keep the quire together while I was scribing.

In regular [later medieval] scriptorium practice, the scribe would be writing on unbound sheets of parchment [which would then be collated and bound]. Some books were also produced with blank quires/gatherings, then written in. Because of the complexity of the collation and scribal work on this project, I decided to scribe directly on to collated and tacketed quires, then resew the quires into the binding once the scribal work was complete.

PML M.910 Acts of the Apostles
detail of M.910 in Sahidic Coptic

img_5004.jpgNow for scribing. To complicate an already complex task, I copied out the Acts of the Apostles, from the typescript Sahidic Coptic on the computer. These are non-calligraphic letter forms, so they do not translate to forms that can be made with quill or pen and ink. I had to ‘translate’ the typescript letterforms to a calligraphic alphabet [with my own cheat sheet], then scribe it in one line in the exact center of the manuscript. Instead of creating a full calligraphic copy of the original [a much larger task], the imaging team wanted a single line down the center, running parallel to the spine of the book, so they could test detection of the iron gall ink through one spot [the center] of the manuscript.

My cluttered scriptorium space – copying Acts of the Apostles from the typeset edition on the computer onto parchment bi-folia using iron gall ink with a variety of pens and quills.
Sahidic Coptic Alphabet [bencrowder.net]
My first attempt at scribing Sahidic Coptic using iron gall ink – approximating the height of lettering in the original. It reads: The Acts of the Apostles – The first word indeed I made, O Theophile, concerning every thing which Jesus began to do and to teach in them…

Once I got my zetas and horis, upsilons and kyimas straight, I was off and quickly got into the scribal groove. This required a zen-like balance between concentration and ease. I scribed a single line on the manuscript, with only one mis-step – which is no problem on parchment since it can be ‘erased’ by scraping away the surface of the skin in a process called palimpsesting [not possible with untreated paper!]. This was satisfying.


IMG_5032 (1)
Paul Dilley, ‘Scribe B’

Paul Dilley even tried his hand at scribing one of the 104 folios. I refer to him as ‘Scribe B’ – not as a statement about his untrained hand, but because he was the second scribe of the manuscript.

Once the scribal work was complete [took a few days], I was on to the binding. After consultation with Coptic binding expert, book conservator Julia Miller, I chose one of the sewing styles illustrated in Szirmai’s Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding.  I had to sew the link stitch loosely in order to meet the 5mm spine width requirement [the original spine is much narrower, but the book block at its largest dimension is 5mm so I had to match that].

I sewed the book with a link stitch, a sewing style that was commonly used in Coptic book production. The link stitch has a fascinating history, since this sewing technology appears in early Christian manuscript production throughout northeast Africa [Egypt, Ethiopia], the near east [Syriac, Georgian, Byzantine, Armenian] – and all the way to the British Isles, as exemplified in the 8th-c. Stonyhurst Gospel of John. It makes sense that the technology would travel as the books traveled and were shared throughout the early Christian world, but it is also became the dominant sewing style for Islamic manuscripts, which means that craft technologies were not sequestered within religious camps – and also suggests that early book makers were drawing on pre-existing craft technologies that were applied to the production of books. Georgios Boudalis, Head of Book and Paper Conservation at the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki presents a case for this in his lecture and exhibit on the origins of book technologies, The Codex and Crafts in Late Antiquity [up through 8 July 2018 Bard Graduate Center Gallery, NYC]. In any case, each culture – Christian and Muslim – adapted the link stitch to their purposes.

I sewed the book like this – using one of many sewing styles for this era of Coptic manuscript. From Szirmai, The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding.


I sewed the book using this link stitch sewing [in two paired stations], being careful to sew loosely so that the book dimension would fit in the scanning stand the Seales team had made. Like the current state of the original, my model had no covers. I shipped the book off, and look forward to hearing about the results of the final scanning of M.910 at the Morgan. Historical bookbinding is something I do regularly to understand binding structures and book action – but it was a thrill to work on this model knowing it was part of this exciting digital imaging project!

Melissa Moreton


Making a Renaissance Humanist Book in Montefiascone, Italy

2017 Montefiascone Week II Italian 15th-c. Binding Ohta Bloxam Thompson class photo copy
The Monte crew – with our Italian 15th-c. binding models!
The fountain in the central piazza in Montefiascone, with a view of the Duomo of Santa Margherita in the distance.

I returned to Italy last summer to take a course at the Montefiascone Project, a program for book conservators and historians in Montefiascone, a medieval hill town near Rome. The program was started decades ago by manuscript painting conservator, Cheryl Porter. Weeklong book courses are taught throughout the month of August each year, focused on the bookbinding techniques and production of a model of a particular historical book.  The goal of making historical binding models is to understand the production techniques used in the period through the process of reverse engineering the book and recreating production methods. This is an extremely useful exercise for historians and conservators alike, who need to understand the codicology of the manuscripts under their care in order to study their production and contents, and treat them effectively.

The 2017 Montefiascone course, An Italian Fifteenth-Century Binding,  was co-taught by tutors Alison Ohta [art historian, Director of the Royal Asiatic Society, London], and book conservators Jim Bloxam, and Sean Thompson [from Cambridge University Library]. We made a model of the original manuscript, a book from the Cambridge University Library [CUL MS Add. 8445], containing Cicero’s Topica, made in Italy c. 1480. The book, written in a humanist script, has tooled cover decoration with near and middle eastern-inspired decoration. We produced the book from start to finish, with a lot of help from our tutors, who had prepared some materials in advance so that we could finish our books in one week!

My model of CUL MS Add. 8445, an Italian Humanist binding from the 15th c.
The workshop studio, a room at the Barbarigo Seminary, Montefiascone.

Conservators come from all over the world to learn these techniques during the Montefiascone summer program. This particular week was exciting for me because the binding we were making is in the family of manuscripts I am currently studying – those produced by the Humanist booksellers in Renaissance Florence. The tooled covers often contained a mix of Byzantine, Islamic [Ottoman, Mamluk, Mudejar] and Italian decorative styles, and I was interested in how the books were produced and the bindings decorated.

Bilde 02.08.2017, 09.41.16
Sean Thompson [right] prepping for a tooling demo.
It was a satisfying week, despite the 104 F degree days! I learned a lot about this group of bindings and was grateful to have met some new colleagues, who share a love of books and manuscripts from the period.

Melissa Moreton

montefiascone 2017 moreton ohta porter
Me, Alison and Cheryl under the beheading of John the Baptist!

Teaching Kids About Life in the Middle Ages – One Book at a Time

Colleen Theisen [left] and Melissa Moreton [right] showing grade schoolers a huge 14th-century Italian missal from southern Italy for the Medieval Manuscripts in the Schools program.
We kicked off the Medieval Manuscripts in the Schools program this fall! Our first group of kids was from the Iowa City public schools. The program was conceived in collaboration with Colleen Theisen, Outreach and Engagement Librarian at the U. Iowa Special Collections. We wanted to introduce young people [K-12] to historical books and book production, and get them excited about medieval and early modern history. There is nothing more exciting than seeing a 500-year old book and imaging the people who made and used it!

We were inspired by the work of amazing medievalist, librarian, and digital humanist Dot Porter of the University of Pennsylvania’s Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, who has done programs with pre-K and Kindergarten students at the Penn Libraries. Here is her blog post on teaching medieval manuscripts to children. Her program with kids is modeled on the work of Lori Dekydtspotter [Head of IU’s Lilly Library Tech. Services]and Cherry Williams [UC Riverside’s Dir. of Distinctive Collections, former Curator of Manuscripts, Lilly Library].  517YRYTWS8LThe program starts with a reading of Marguerite Makes a Book by Bruce Robertson and Kathryn Hewitt [1999], the fictional story of the young daughter of a manuscript illuminator in late medieval Paris. Marguerite has to take over finishing an important commission for a wealthy patron and noblewoman –  a book of hours – and the reader follows Marguerite through the steps of purchasing parchment, pigments, inks, and quills and laying out and painting decorative borders and initials in the book. Since the book was too long to be read during the program, it was read by the teachers in class before the group came to the library. We started the program by discussing the story and the details of Marguerite’s work, then passed around quills, pigments [in bags], a heavy stone mortar and pestle, pigment

My medieval pigments color chart, from Cheryl Porter’s ‘Medieval Palette’ course on manuscript pigments

color chart, and I walked around and gave each student a bit of gold leaf on their fingertip [they were super excited by this]. We also passed around blank books, models of medieval manuscripts, that I had made and a few that came from the UI Book Conservation Lab Binding Models Collection. The kids were not impressed with these – ‘there are no words in here!’ was the common observation. Colleen and I have since regrouped and decided that manuscript facsimiles will be key to the success of the show and tell! The kids do need to touch something – we learned that very quickly – and this is something echoed in by Porter, Dekydtspotter and Williams. The boys especially need kinetic activities to keep them engaged for the long [90 minute] time frame. So we’re working on that.

manuscripts in the schools medieval leafThe obvious challenge in all of this is that the kids cannot touch the 600-year old books [and they so want to]! So we found ways to allow them to have lateral interactions [with facsimiles, book models, and materials for making manuscripts] without damaging the manuscripts from Special Collections – a key requirement. Using encapsulated manuscript leaves [manuscript pages housed in mylar frames] was also useful, since kids could get close to these without damaging them. Most Special Collections have leaves, even if they don’t have full manuscript books. Kids had to some work – like trying to figure out what pigments were used in the leaves, by comparing the colors to the colors on the pigment charts I had provided. They loved this! The pigment charts have a full range of medieval colors on them and were made in manuscript painting conservator Cheryl Porter’s Medieval Palette course [taught at the Montefiascone Project in Italy and other places around the world]. Kids also had to do a ‘treasure hunt’ and find letters in the leaves that they didn’t recognize – strange letters and abbreviations. We returned to this at the end of the program.

After revisiting Marguerite Makes a Book, touching materials used to make manuscripts, and looking at some encapsulated leaves, we moved to a show and tell introduction to Special Collections manuscript books, drawn from a variety of cultures and time periods. These included a Torah scroll in Hebrew, Ethiopian manuscript in Ge’ez, a buddhist palm leaf manuscript in Pali, Chinese scroll, a tiny Koran in a minuscule

miniature koran with pendant case [UI Smith BP100 1300]
Arabic script [with added bonus of it being housed in a case that is worn as a necklace pendant], and a Franco-Flemish 15th-c. book of hours with a hot pink cover. Showing manuscripts from a range of cultures and religions was a priority, and as we’d hoped, got the kids engaged in conversations about the diversity of religions represented in their own classrooms, which includes children from muslim, jewish, christian and buddhist families. It was a great cross-cultural glimpse at the different forms a book can come in – and allowed us to talk about the central importance of the book in all cultures.


We then moved to a new activity [every program segment was about 15 minutes long]. We divided the kids into small groups of 4-5 and had them ‘visit’ different countries – each represented by a table with a manuscript on it, a map of where the manuscript was made, and some images [painting reproductions] of who might have made and used that book in the middle ages or early modern period. These included a 15th-century French book of hours [of course – a nod to Marguerite], a book copied out by a 13 year old scribe in 15th-c. Florence [Pharsalia], a giant liturgical manuscript with musical notation from 14th-c. Italy, and a will from 13th-century England with a cool wax seal attached at the bottom [straight out of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings]. We asked students what they thought about how the manuscripts might have been made and used – and it was really fun and interesting to hear their ideas.

Colleen works her magic with UI book of hours made in Paris, c.1480, with a bright pink color [xMMs.Bo5]. They were wondering ‘had Marguerite made this book?’ – no, but she could have!
Looking at the 300+ page copy of the Pharsalia, about the ancient Roman civil wars, copied by a 13-year old boy near Florence, Italy, in 1465. Their teacher used this as an opportunity to say that they should be thankful that he only asks them to copy 2 pages of writing! They weren’t buying it. [UI xMMs.Hi1]
Julia Rohn talks about a medieval charter with a seal from Oxnoll, England, c. 1320 [UI xMMs.Ch2]

Down time at the end of the program – figuring out the alphabet in Gothic script and laughing a medieval jokes.

183815ea64cf3273c3d41718e47c0a91--les-alphabets-visual-designWe regrouped at the end of the program for a little slide show on medieval scribes, scripts and alphabets. The Latin alphabet written in Gothic script was great to go through, since the kids know the alphabet by heart, but had to figure out which letters are missing from the medieval Latin alphabet [j, w] and why there were extra letters in the alphabet of scripts [like a long ‘s’, two ways of writing ‘r’, etc.]. This also tied in with the activities we’d started with – looking at the work of scribes and manuscript decorators, and finding strange letters in the manuscript leaves we looked at. We ended the day with images from medieval psalters – lots of farting priests, sparring snails, foxes preaching to geese, mischievous monkeys, and bunnies capturing hunters. Everyone gets a fart joke, even 600 years after it was made!

Detail of the 14th-c. Gorleston psalter, f. 82r [British Library Add MS 49622]

Students got a take-home gift on the way out the door – an activity book I made with calligraphy exercises and design templates that allow them to design their own decorated manuscript page. They were excited about this and it has Colleen and I thinking about how to incorporate a hands-on calligraphy component into the program [in another room – keeping the ink away from the manuscripts]!

Two articles have been important for helping us clarify our program goals. These are by the aforementioned Dekydtspotter and Williams who published ‘Reaching Back, Reaching Out: Illuminated Manuscript for K-8 Students’ [in Using Primary Sources: Hands-On Instructional Exercises, Bahde, ed., pp. 67-73] and ‘Not Beyond Our Reach: Collaboration in Special Collection Libraries’ [in the Universal Journal of Educational Research 2 [5], pp. 432-436] in 2014. They suggest outreach approaches for K-8 instruction, learning objectives, guidelines for program length and content.

The bottom line was that this was a lot of work and took collaboration across several departments, but the kids learned a lot, got an intro to medieval and early modern culture – and it was so much fun! We encourage others to try it. Many elementary schools have cut back their history curricula in order to make time for training students in digital/ computer skills, and prepare them for standardized tests. The teachers we spoke with specifically lamented the loss of units on the Middle Ages, and were enthusiastic about providing their students with this unique introduction to medieval life – in Europe and beyond. Colleen and I plan to write about our experiences with the U. Iowa program and make a template [similar to the Dekydtspotter and Williams outline] available that can be used for K-12 programs across the US.

It was important to have many adults on hand and Colleen and I were grateful for the help of Teresa Galluzzo, and the folks from the UI Special Collections, Julia Rohn, Hannah Hacker, Alycia Pringle, and Michaela Terronez. Thank you!

Melissa Moreton






Parchment! Making Manuscript Material from Animal Skin

Parchmenters’ selfie.

We made parchment! We lucked out and got some warm weather into October this year – just enough to get outside and make parchment with students in my Material Analysis: Manuscripts Across Cultures course. A fresh goat skin was procured from the talented Jesse Meyer, a parchment maker who runs Pergamena in upstate New York, and with the help of Bill Voss [UI Book Conservation Tech] we managed to get the job done.


Parchment is a high tension sheet material, used across cultures as a substrate for writing sacred and secular texts – as well as for binding and covering books. Certain religious traditions still dictate the use of parchment for sacred books – such as the Torah scroll. In the Islamic tradition, it was early on superseded by paper, which was introduced through trade and cultural contact with communities in east Asia via the Silk Road. Europeans used parchment until paper became readily available, an increase that was fueled by adoption of the printing press in the mid 15th century. Parchment was difficult to print on – early printers tried this [15th-c. examples exist in most Special Collections]! It was also too expensive, considering the volume that was required to meet the demands of the new printing press.

Hair sheep – the original sheep.

Parchment can be made out of any animal skin [yes, any], but the parchment found in manuscripts is generally from sheep, hair sheep [an old variety of sheep used for meat, not wool], goat, calf, and wild hoofed animal [such as deer, gazelle, etc.]. The term ‘vellum’ shares its root with the word ‘veal’ and, strictly speaking, only refers to parchment made from calf skin. Parchment made from unborn or uterine calf, called slunk, was rare but prized because it was quite smooth and could be made very thin.

It was long believed that the tissue thin parchment used to make thousands of popular pocket bibles in medieval France was uterine calf or sheep. However, a fascinating 2015 study debunked this notion [see Fiddyment et al.,  ‘Animal Origin of 13th-century Uterine Vellum Revealed Using Noninvasive Peptide Fingerprinting’]. A team of researchers extracted parchment proteins from over 500 manuscript leaves [including samples from 72 bibles from France, England, and Italy] to determine that the parchment used was not uterine. Instead, the researchers concluded that the thinness was achieved by the parchmenter, not through a selection of unborn animals – a practice that would have been unsustainable for obvious reasons. The research methods used are revolutionary, since previous studies had to rely on taking small clippings of manuscripts and conducting tests that were destructive. The new technique extracts proteins by rubbing a small white [PVC] eraser on the parchment surface – a process that electrostatically transfers a fine layer of membrane onto the eraser for testing. Part [or all?] of the team of conservators, scientists, historians, and art historians who completed this study are continuing with their studies of parchment animal origin, testing each leaf of an entire manuscript instead of a sampling of leaves. In a recent study, they have been able to non-destructively analyze the animal origin of all the parchment skins used in on single medieval manuscript, a 12th-century copy of the Gospel of Luke. Testing revealed that the manuscript was comprised of not one animal type, but a mix of animal skins – including sheep, goat and calf [as well as deer leather on the covers]. Their next step is to build a genealogical tree, linking the DNA evidence to the individual animals and tracing their relationships within the herd or herds. This type of analysis has wide-reaching implications for economic, social and cultural history, since it reveals information about animal husbandry, trade patterns, and a range factors affecting the production of texts. And it’s pretty cool to see what can be accomplished when a team of scholars and scientists gets together to work on a problem – a little zooarchaeology and mass spectrometry and bam – a longstanding controversy in manuscript studies is solved!

I could go on and on about parchment – but I’ll share just one more anecdote. I remember my first experience with parchment was in Florence, Italy, where I was an art history graduate student at Syracuse University. Working in the Florentine archives and libraries was an eye-opening experience, and I saw manuscripts and documents written on parchment [and paper] that were hundreds of years old – most of which had held up well. I worked on a research project on parchment in our Intro to Art Conservation course and discovered Christopher Clarkson’s 1992 essay on parchment, a piece that was foundational for my understanding of the material. ‘Rediscovering Parchment: The Nature of the Beast’ in The Paper Conservator, Vol. 16, Issue 1. pp. 5-26. Takeaways are – parchment is a high tension sheet material that is hygroscopic, sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. Also, it used to be on an animal and different parts of the skin stretch and expand more than others [neck, hips, around the legs] – look for these differences the next time you look at a manuscript [waves and curling at the top and bottom, foredge, etc.]. Even after it is dry, parchment wants to stretch, shrink and move – and the job of book covers, straps, and clasps is to keep it flat!

Parchment maker scudding a skin. Die Hausbücher der Nürnberger Zwolfbrüderstiftungen [Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg, MS Amb. 317b, fol. 77r]
The parchment making process begins the same as all leather tanning and tawing processes – the hair and flesh are removed from the animal skin. The skin is soaked in a lime solution and then ‘scudded’ over a board to remove the hair. The image shows the parchmenter at work, removing hair from the skin with the bowed scudding knife and board. The vat for soaking skins is to his left, below a shelf with books [with spines facing out]. This is the messy, smelly bit that requires soaking time and wet space that you don’t mind getting dirty. We started with a de-haired and de-fleshed goat skin.


A weaver’s knot.

Our skin was fresh, but you can also start with a rawhide [dehaired, defleshed skin that has been dried]. Parchment makers say that a fresh skin is more flexible and easier to stretch thin [which makes sense], but I haven’t noticed a difference in the few I’ve used. After rinsing the skin, we strung it up on a frame that I’d built out of 2x4s with holes around the perimeter to lace cord through. The ties have to pull the skin with equal tension on all sides. The skin is quite slippery, so this is the challenging part. Bill Voss and I made parchment last fall for the Mellon Sawyer Seminar and eventually found the right string [thin, strong and rough] and the right knot [slip knot or a weaver’s knot]. We cinched the cord up around gatherings of skin which were wrapped over a small stone, marble or wad of paper to form a knob [something for the rope to grab on to].


Once the skin was strung up, we drew a special blade across the surface to stretch it and reorient the fiber so the skin dries flat and taut. Bill is an extraordinary tool maker and made a beautiful lunarium – a double-handled half moon blade – for the job. It needs to be sharpened periodically.

As the skin was scraped, it stretched and continuously needed to be retightened. The goal is to reorient fibers of the skin and allow it to dry under tension. A dry parchment sheet is always under tension and this is why parchment manuscripts needed to be put into bindings with heavy wooden covers with clasp enclosures, to prevent them from popping open and moving around – which is what they’ll do left to their own devices.

img_4423.jpgWe got the skin stretched and both the hair and flesh sides scraped. The next step was to let it dry and sand it to a finished surface, which I did the following day. Traditionally scrapers could be used, or pumice cakes [ground glass baked into cakes] to sand the skin smooth. The skin has two sides – hair and flesh sides. The side the hair was on [hair side] tends to be smooth and shiny [and resistant to ink], and hair follicles are usually visible. The side facing the animal is the flesh side and tends to be soft with rough bits. It is soft and fuzzy after being scraped – so the trick is to buff the hair side up to match the flesh side, making it suitable for writing. Although if you want to use your parchment for book covers, in the limp parchment cover style, you might want to leave the hair side as is [and put it on the book hair side out].

I used a palm sander to smooth both sides of the skin, with sand paper of varying grits [rough to smooth]. The skin was then cut off the frame and was ready to be cut down for the covers or bifolia [folded sheets] of a manuscript. I divvied the sheet up between Bill and the students who helped make it.

Understanding how this material was made added to students’ understanding of why European parchment manuscripts had to be covered with heavy wooden boards and clasps to keep the books shut and keep the parchment from warping with changes in temperature and humidity. We talked about this as we were making the parchment and noticing it’s pull on the ties as it dried. In a European climate, with seasonal swings in temperature and humidity, parchment wants to move! The heavy boards and clasps keep them in place. Without these, parchment can warp, curl and crease, damaging text and image. The image below illustrates this – from a parchment manuscript in UI Collection that lost is straps and clasps long ago and has now warped, with parchment curling into quill-like spirals [xMMs.Miss1]. Early Islamic manuscripts were produced on parchment, but were more stable in the arid climate of the Middle East and North Africa [and Islamic manuscript production soon switched to paper].


It was a thrill to have made our own parchment! Having just made paper, we compared the time it took to make our 50 sheets of paper vs. 1 sheet of parchment. From papermaker Tim Barrett’s research, we know that 2,000 sheets of paper could be produced by a 3-person papermaking team in one day. I don’t know the statistics on how many sheets of parchment could be made in one day by three parchmenters [15 skins?], but it was clear that parchment making was much more labor intensive – especially considering it took several hours to process one skin – and that’s without killing and skinning the goat, scudding and de-fleshing the skin! This really brings home the economics of book production in the medieval and early modern world. Parchment books were expensive – even before they even were scribed and decorated. The shift to printed books on paper in the mid-15th century was monumental. It transformed the book market, contributed to the distribution of books to a wider audience, and dramatically increased literacy from the 16th-century onward. Parchment manuscripts continued to be produced, but printed books were on the rise, and the role of paper in this transformation should not be underestimated!

Melissa Moreton

Making Paper in the Indo-Islamic and European Style

Students in my Material Analysis: Manuscripts Across Cultures course had a chance to get their hands wet and learn how handmade paper has been produced since the 12th century in Europe and even earlier in the Islamic lands of northern India. We held class in the hand papermaking studio at the UI Center for the Book and used both European and Islamic style moulds to pull sheets of paper. The main difference between the European and Indo-Islamic styles of papermaking is the style of the mould [or screen/ frame], method of pulling sheets, and the fact that almost all Islamic paper used in manuscripts is burnished, or polished after drying to make it shiny and easy to write and paint on.

paper group crpd 2017 fall
Students after a successful papermaking session, holding tools of the trade, wool felts, paper moulds and deckles.
This is a European paper mould –  the deckle frame and the screen with its laid and chain line wires are visible.

We had already seen a lot of handmade paper in the European and Islamic manuscripts and books we’d studied in Special Collections. We had also spent a session looking for and identifying watermarks, so being able to create paper by hand brought a new understanding to this substrate and its properties. We discussed the papermaking process and the different types of moulds, or framed screens, used to make European and Islamic-style paper. This is a mould used for European paper production. It is a screen, made from fine wire running horizontally, tied in with wire running vertically where the wooden support slats meet the screen.

The corner of a European-style sheet of handmade paper from UICB. Watermark and horizontal laid lines are visible, vertical chain lines are faintly visible.

The fine horizontal wires form ‘laid lines’ and the vertical wires form wider ‘chain lines’ on the paper sheet. If the mould has a watermark, it is made of wire or shaped metal and sewn into the screen with fine wire. When held up to the light, these laid and chain lines [and watermarks] are visible, because the paper is less dense in those areas. Historically, European moulds had distinctive laid and chain lines, depending on the mill where the mould was produced. Along with identifying the watermark, the width of the laid lines and the distance between both the laid and chain lines are codicological details that can help identify where the paper was produced. Students also got to use a ‘deckle’, the frame that is laid over the screen to hold the paper onto the mould. It is then removed before transferring the sheet off the mould, creating a feathery edge to the paper [called a ‘deckle’, visible in the image]. It was informative for students to connect the physical structure of the mould to the historical sheets we’d seen in Special Collections.

Detail of a 19th-c. manuscript painting from Kashmir, showing an Islamic papermaker at work gripping the mould and deckle sticks. He crouches over the vat, beside a red container of pulp. Wet sheets hang to dry, others await burnishing and trimming [British Lib., Add Or Ms 1699].
Pulling a sheet of paper pulp using a European-style mould

The papermaking process varies depending on when and where the paper is made, but the basic process of making all paper is simple.  It requires fiber, water and some sort of screen or mould. Paper pulp is produced by preparing fiber [cotton, hemp, flax, mulberry, etc.] and beating it by hand or in a beater [or large stamping mill in the case of medieval European paper]. The papermaker suspends the pulp in water and dips the mould into the vat of watery pulp [or pours pulp into a mould floating in water in the Nepalese style]. The mould is lifted up, the water drains out and pulp remains on the screen. The layer of pulp is transferred off the screen producing a stack of paper which is pressed. Pressed sheets are then removed and dried.



Hemp is a common fiber used in Indo-Islamic papermaking [but this varies depending on where the paper is made – people use whatever materials are available locally]. We used pulp made from a blend of cotton and abaca [banana leaf] fiber, a combination that closely approximates the strength and flexibility of the hemp fiber traditionally used in this style of Islamic papermaking. European paper was traditionally made of flax, since the main source for paper pulp was used linen rag. Linen is made from the flax plant, which produces a very strong and durable fiber.

In the Indo-Islamic style, sheets are pulled from the vat of watery pulp using a mould made with wooden support, a flexible screen and deckle sticks. The screen is then ‘floated’ just underneath the surface of the water in the vat, so the layer of pulp separates from the mould slightly. After the sheet is pulled the deckle sticks are removed and the flexible screen with the pulp on it is transferred to a stack – the screen is similar to a Japanese papermaking screen or ‘su’. There are many aspects of this style of Islamic papermaking that are similar to Asian papermaking [the su-style flexible screen, floating of the mould on the water/pulp surface], and look to European papermaking [fiber type and prep]. Papermaking is believed to have been invented in China in the early 2nd c. CE, spread to Islamic lands in the middle ages, and introduced to Europe via Islamic trade routes by the 11th c.. Islamic papermaking, therefore, was a technological bridge between east Asia and Europe. I have written about the spread of early papermaking technologies, specifically Nepalese-style paper production, on the Mellon Sawyer Seminar blog, ‘Cultural and Textual Exchanges: The Manuscript Across Premodern Eurasia.’

Transferring pressed sheets of handmade paper to a board for drying.
Stack of pressed sheets, ready for drying.

The stack of sheets is then pressed, individual sheets separated, and dried. Sheets can be air dried, dried on a heated wall, or dried under weight – each process gives the paper a different surface and feel. In the Indo-Islamic tradition, the sheets are brushed out on to an absorbent sun-warmed plaster wall and dried in the sun [Japanese paper is dried in a similar way today, using a heated metal wall]. In medieval and early modern Europe, paper was stacked into ‘spurs’, or flat stacks of a few sheets, and hung to dry in lofts above the paper mill, where humidity was monitored so the paper dried in a controlled manner.  In any case, students tried their hand at pulling both Indo-Islamic and European style sheets, transferring them to stacks, pressing and drying them.


We also were treated to a short presentation on Indo-Islamic paper by UICB papermaking instructor Radha Pandey, who discussed her paper research and showed up samples of paper she had made and hand dyed with persimmon, indigo, walnut, and other natural dyes.

Sized and highly burnished sheets of handmade paper from northern India.

Pandey also showed us two large sheets made by papermakers she had met in Rajasthan, India, who have worked for generations in the same Indo-Islamic style. Their paper is made, dried, coated with a protective coating of size, dried again, and highly burnished – rubbed with a hard stone until it is shiny. Sizing can be made from wheat starch, gelatin [in the European tradition], or egg whites, and provides a protective coating for the paper that prevents ink from bleeding into the surface when it is written or painted on. Sizing can also strengthen paper, and is a necessary step before the paper is burnished.

Burnishing a dry sheet of handmade paper.

Burnishing is done after the paper is dried, sized by brushing on the size solution of choice, and dried again. A smooth hard stone [or glass] is used to flatten the rough surface, making it much easier to write on. It also makes it shiny and brilliant and interestingly, very parchment-like. Islamic paper is known for its high sheen and smooth surface, and this is something the students noticed when we looked at Islamic manuscripts in Special Collections. Was sizing and paper burnishing an attempt to make paper more parchment-like? Tim Barrett has discussed the use of gelatin sizing in European papers, but how was sizing and burnishing seen in the Islamic world?

One of the Islamic ms. in UI Special Collections, a tiny Koran on paper, worn as a necklace pendant [inside a leather case]. UI Ms Smith BP100 1300
Students had a chance to burnish dry sheets of paper during class. They received the European and Indo-Islamic sheets that they had made at the next class period, once they had dried. It is pretty awesome to have created a sheet material by hand that you can write on! The processes we used echoed the traditional papermaking traditions we’d read about. On Islamic papermaking, see Jonathan Bloom’s Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World [2001]. On European papermaking see Sylvia Albro’s Fabriano: City of Medieval and Renaissance Papermaking [2016] and Tim Barrett’s website on European Papermaking Techniques from 1300-1800, Paper Through Time: Nondestructive Analysis of 14th- through 19th-Century Papers. Tim is coming out with a history of European paper – so stay tuned!

Paper mills existed in Europe several centuries before the printing press, but the invention of the press in the mid-fifteenth century necessitated a massive increase in production. Paper became so available that it was used for both European printed books and manuscripts in the middle ages and early modern period. Though it was difficult for most of us to pull a perfect sheet from the vat on our first try, it really illuminated the basic simplicity of papermaking as a technology – and drove home the idea that it would be possible to make hundreds of sheets of European paper in a day [2,000 a day with a 3-person team]. At that level of production, parchment could not compete. After making these sheets, it was easy for students to see why paper was a cheaper alternative to parchment [by some estimates, up to 10 times cheaper], the dominant sheet material in medieval Europe. In the Islamic world, early Korans were produced on parchment, but paper was adopted as early as the 8th century, and soon became the preferred sheet material for Korans and Koranic literature. The choice a scribe made between using parchment and paper is interesting and tied up in a whole range of commercial, cultural, artistic, and religious considerations. Next up, parchment-making!

Melissa Moreton





Current obsession: watermarks! Watermarks are created by the papermaker’s mould, which is used to pull wet pulp out of the vat to form sheets of handmade paper. The raised wire impression on the mould creates a place where the paper is thinner/less dense and therefore more translucent when held up to light [above left: papermaker’s mould from U.Iowa Center for the Book papermaking facility; above right: the resulting sheet of handmade paper with backlit watermark visible].

If you are not familiar with the process of hand papermaking, here is a look at a paper production at a mill in Maidstone, Kent, England [Hayle Mill, run by Barcham Green and family]. It’s a video from 1976 – oldie but a goodie by Anglia TV – when the mill was still operational. The video describes the papermaker’s mould, watermarks and goes through the steps involved in handmade paper production. For more on the history of this mill, check out this forthcoming publication by the Legacy Press, The Hayle Mill: The History of How a Handmade Paper Manufacturer Survived the Age of the Machine, by Maureen Green.
Hayle Mill Video: https://youtu.be/Xs3PfwOItto

Another video poetically describes a papermaking mill in Puymoyen [southwest France, the region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine]. The mill has been revived by Jacques Bréjoux and is equipped with both medieval-style stampers and a Hollander-style beater [I don’t think the stampers are shown in this particular video]. Video by Victor Ede, ‘Vingt grammes par mètre carré’, 2003 – click on the video image to play:

Watermarks were the papermakers’ logo and calling card. If I were a scribe in 15th-c. Italy, I might recognize that – oh that paper with the crossed arrows is the good stuff from Fabriano – and look for it again at the stationer’s shop. Though an individual mould only lasted about a year [in full production], a watermark symbol was remade again and again on new moulds associated with a given paper mill. Watermarks also wore out over the course of a year, changing slightly in shape and definition. This provides a unique fingerprint that one day may be used to more closely identify production from a single mill [even if we don’t have the name of that mill] and maybe even trace paper specimens to an individual mould.

Unfortunately, studies of watermarks generally do not connect watermarked paper to specific paper mills [Sylvia Albro’s 2016 book on Fabriano is one exception – since it looks at paper production from the perspective of the mill in Fabriano, Italy, using its extensive archive. It’s a fantastic read – Fabriano: City of Medieval and Renaissance Papermaking. More on the book in a future post!] For example, Briquet’s study on watermarks provides tracings of watermarks found in selected archives throughout Europe [largely in France and Italy], and lists the date and archive info of the related document, if known. So, if I find a watermark in a manuscript on paper, and locate it in Briquet, it will tell me what other documents and books on paper contain that watermark and what archives in Europe hold these – and provide a date if possible [but cannot specify the mill or location the paper came from]. Watermarks can be helpful in supporting or denying other evidence about the manuscript in question – and providing a general date for undated manuscripts. It can also provide important evidence about the movement of paper across Europe, Africa and the Middle East. For example, an early printed book from Spain, may contain Italian paper – not because Spain didn’t have paper [it was among the earliest places in Europe to have Islamic papermaking, for example], but because by the late fifteenth century, Italians were making some very high quality paper and shipping it across Europe. This is the case with one of the earliest printed book from Seville,  Spain – a Dominican processional from 1494 – which contains Italian paper. The University of Iowa Special Collections holds a copy of this book, in an early blind tooled binding [more on UI xBX2049 D6C371494 cop.1 in a future post].

Watermark of a deer/cerf in a shield in the gutter of U.Iowa MS xMMs.Misc2. Sanctorum et virorum Dei atque sapientium astrologorum vaticinia de pontificibus et prophetiae de statu regnorum mundi. Below, corresponding watermark from Briquet [close but not exact] from mid 16th-c. Germany – where the UI manuscript is from.

Most of the four-volume set of Briquet is now online. Print publication is: Charles Moïse Briquet. 1907. Les filigranes: Dictionnaire historique des marques du papier dès leur apparition vers 1282 jusqu’en 1600 avec 39 figures dans le texte et 16 112 fac-similés de filigranes. Briquet’s watermark symbols are categorized by subject [in French – agneau/  lamb, armoiries/ shield, cerf/ deer, couronne/ crown, licorne/ unicorn, ours/ bear, etc.]. More about the pros and cons of this system and the fascinating connections between Briquet and his late 19th-century contemporaries in Italy, the Zonghi bros. in a future post!

In the meantime, check out this expanded resource that compiles over 260,000 digitized watermarks from 35 collections [including Briquet] – Bernstein The Memory of Paper. The site is based in Germany and takes inspiration for its name from the German word for ‘amber’, a substance that traps evidence inside it – information that can be revealed by being held up to the light [similar to how scholars hold up a sheet to look for watermarks]. This site is a great leap forward in compiling tools for the study of watermarks. The basic data is provided for each watermark [image, archives that hold paper with that watermark, date when possible]. The possibilities of mining this newly compiled data are vast. As a basic test exercise working with the Bernstein database, one of my Center for the Book/ Library Science graduate students [Chris Taylor] is working on a project mapping the spread of unicorn watermarks across medieval Europe. A spreadsheet and a little geo-mapping will go a long way in understanding how papermaking spread across Europe. If watermark info can be connected to a number of archive location, this info can be used to help pinpoint the location and period of operation of paper mills. The U. Iowa’s Atlas of Early Printing is a valuable resource for information on the physical proximity of paper mills to printing presses in incunable-era Europe [1450-1500]. It’s time now to bring it to the next level! This is the history of technology and it will be interesting to see how paper production intersects with with the history of ideas and textual production.

In short, the field of watermark research is really wide open. Very little scholarship has been done on analyzing these marks – categorizing them into thematic genres [papal, animal, plant, etc.] and studying how they were developed and adopted across Europe. For example, the Benedictine monasteries in central Italy [Umbria], who were making paper in the Middle Age, adopted the 3-hilled mount topped with a cross as their symbol [for obvious reasons]. Are the Benedictines connected to this symbol across Europe? Who is buying their paper and how far from the monastery is it used? What sizes are they producing [smaller sizes or large – what is their production capacity]? In the early modern period, the French and Venetians developed/adopted the tre lune / three crescent moons watermark – to sell to the Ottoman market with the logic that Muslims were more likely to buy paper with a familiar symbol on it than paper with a Christian cross or other imagery. After a 16th-century fatwa was issued, speaking out against the scribing of the Qu’ran on to Christian paper, the European Christian papermakers had to change their watermark symbols in order to fill this niche Ottoman market. When does this shift occur? How else have watermarks been changed to adapt to shifting market forces? To date there is no comprehensive study of the development and spread of European watermarks. This is a rich field for potential research with far-reaching implications for understanding the economic, cultural, religious and intellectual history of the paper-using world [and I haven’t even mentioned paper imports into New World markets!].

Islamic paper generally did not have watermarks, because of the method in which it was made, which did not use a rigid wire mould [and therefore one could not sew a metal watermark into it]. However, Islamic paper does have a specific quality [seen when backlit], depending on where and when it was made across the vast territories of the Islamic world. Paper mould lines, fiber distribution, color, texture, could be quantitatively cataloged across the Islamic world in order to place production geographically. This is another completely understudied field – and anyone with an interest, some funding, a bunch of time [a decade, to start] and some skills could undertake this exciting project. PhD dissertation/ Fulbright scholarship project, anyone? Another exciting avenue in study of paper history is coming from the field of science. Research is being done to isolate the physical properties of the water molecules used to make individual sheets of paper, in order to locate the longitude and latitude of the place where that paper was made. Mind blown. This won’t provide a date, but would go a long way toward locating centers for paper production – especially on paper made in the Islamic world. Islamic manuscripts often contain colophons, which may date them and provide the name of the scribe, but they generally do not provide the place of production. It is always possible that paper is made in one place and made into a manuscript in another place – but having this information on paper production sites would add greatly to our knowledge about the production of documents and manuscripts in the Islamic world – and provide more accurate information about the spread of paper from China outward to the west and east.



Students in my Material Analysis course at the Center for the Book [University of Iowa, Fall 2017] spent a class session in Special Collections searching for watermarks in some fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscripts and early printed books. This is always an eye-opening exercise, especially if you’ve never seen a backlit watermark suddenly appear out of nowhere. One student commented that it felt like opening presents as a kid on their birthday – who knew what would be inside the next book! There is that moment when the watermark is illuminated – it is like magic, every time.

The smart phone has revolutionized the search for watermarks. Archives and libraries often do not have a light sheet and it can be difficult to see the watermark without a good light source from behind – enter iPhone flashlight function!


But you also need another smart phone or camera to take a photo of the watermark in order to match it to Briquet. Unless you have a folio paper format manuscript, you will need to piece together 2 or 4 parts of a watermark [if your book is in quarto or octavo format]. A sketch from the photo/s can be very helpful. I usually upload the images to my computer and copy them by putting a piece of paper on my computer screen and tracing them directly from my screen. Don’t forget to copy the chain lines [widely spaced lines running vertically on the sheet, made from the mould, seen with backlighting] and a few of the laid lines [smaller horizontal lines made by the mould], since these help identify them in Briquet. A good codicologist will also measure the distance between chain lines, since that information can also be helpful in differentiating one paper from another [if watermarks are similar]. A mill, like Fabriano, produced moulds with a characteristic quality to the laid and chains lines – to the point where a paper scholar familiar with a particular production style, like Sylvia Albro, can take one look at a sheet from Fabriano and [probably before she even sees the watermark] have a good sense that the paper was made there.

The students found all sorts of interesting watermarks in their books – crossed arrows [Fabriano’s dardi decussati], and cross bow in a circle – both present in 15th-c. Italian papers [below, from U.Iowa Super FOLIO BX1935 .C55 1479], as well as fleur de lis, and an elk in a shield [see earlier images, Germany mid-16th c.].



They also found a curious 5-leaf clover[?] watermark in the lower outer corner of a quarto format Bible from Munich – yet to be identified – printed in Venice in 1484 [U.Iowa BS75 1484]. Some paper moulds had watermarks [countermarks] in each corner of the mould, as well as central watermarks and corresponding countermarks, but I’d have to spend more time with this paper to see what’s going on.

watermark with coutermarks
Diagram of a sheet with a central watermark and countermarks in all four corners. Churchill, 1990.

Next week we’ll be making our own sheets of handmade paper – both European style and Indo-Islamic at the University of Iowa Center for the Book’s papermaking studio. We’ll also be burnishing some of these sheets [polishing them to a shine with a hard stone] – a technique historically used to make the paper smoother and easier to write on. Burnishing also gave paper the sheen of a fine parchment sheet [that must have been a bonus]. Check back for the new blog post!

Melissa Moreton

Ethiopian manuscript production – keepin’ it real since the 4th c. CE

A link stitch [with heavy folk repairs] on an Ethiopian manuscript. U.Iowa MS xMs U584 etb16
Christianity was established in Ethiopia in the early 4th century, shortly after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire [by an edict of toleration, the Edict of Milan 313 CE]. The Ethiopian Church had early links to the Coptic communities in Egypt, where Christianity had been established since the 1st century. The Coptic binding style, a link [chain] stitch, spread to Ethiopia along with the Christian texts they held together. The link stitch, with its linked teardrop shaped chain, continued to spread with the dissemination of texts, throughout the Christian world. It shows up on Coptic, Ethiopian, Byzantine, and Armenian bindings – and when Muslims adopt a book form for their new Qu’ranic texts – it is the link stitch they choose to bind them with. It is a truly transnational book structure – before ‘transnational’ was popular!

Ethiopian manuscripts have been made with the same techniques for over 1,000 years. Other manuscript traditions have changed over time, switching the materials they were written on [papyrus, parchment, paper, etc.] and the methods in which they wrote [carbon-based inks, iron and oak gall ink, reed pen to quill, etc.]. The basics materials and techniques used in Ethiopian manuscript production are well-illustrated by looking at any Ethiopian manuscript. They are almost exclusively made on parchment [animal skin], traditionally written with carbon-based ink [for black], using a reed pen. Though there have been several English language catalogues and books published on the arts and book traditions of Ethiopia in recent decades, one of the best is the early classic, Bookmaking in Ethiopia, by Sergew Hable Selassie [Leiden, 1981].

5.xMs U584etb15 Ethiopian ms
Ethiopian manuscript – made with reed pen, on parchment. U.Iowa MS xMs U584etb

The Ethiopian process of making manuscripts is demonstrated in a short film called ‘The Parchment Makers: An Ancient Art in Present-Day Ethiopia‘ – I recommend it highly if you haven’t already seen it! It walks the viewer through the steps of making parchment: stretching the wet, dehaired goatskin onto a wooden frame, scraping it, sanding it with pumice stone, drying it and cutting it from the parchmenter’s frame. It is then cut into usable bifolia [folded sheets], which are ruled in drypoint [scored using a metal stylus and straight edge] to form the guidelines for writing. It is scribed in Ge’ez, the official language of the Ethiopian Church, and decorated before being bound [usually in wooden covers, sometimes covered in tooled leather] using a link stitch sewing.

Students in my Material Analysis course [Fall 2017] had a chance to look at 4 new Ethiopian manuscripts the U.Iowa Special Collections just acquired as part of the Fritz James Collection. Though they are all 19th and 20th-century manuscripts, they were made with the same materials and techniques as they would have been if they’d been produced in the 15th century. Of course, the style of the script differs [it changed paleographically century by century], but the scribal technique of using a reed pen remained the same. The collection includes a psalter with daily prayers, a missal, a talismanic scroll inside a leather case, and a devotional manuscript containing the life of Abba Gäbrä Mänfäs Qǝddus, a 14th-century monk from Egypt, who spent many years of his life in Ethiopia.


U.Iowa MS xMs U584etb6. An Ethiopian manuscript [psalter/daily prayer book] from the Fritz James Collection at the University of Iowa Special Collections.
We discussed collation [how the leaves are put together to form the gatherings or quires], and the production techniques visible on the manuscripts – prick marks for ruling, use of carbon-black, red/rubrics, binding, and decoration. We also briefly discussed the development of the script from the 12th century onward and were able to differentiate these 19th and 20th-century styles of handwriting from earlier examples. Two students also managed to translate the Ge’ez on their missal and make out that one of the rubricated/ red words was the Ge’ez word for God!

We talked about readers marks/ signs of use – for example, the folio [above] is a grimy, well-used page. Book marks and little strings tied through the pricked ruling holes also show where and how this book was used. Much more to discover in these manuscripts!

Melissa Moreton

9.xMs U584etb15 Ethiopian ms
Ethiopian manuscript in Ge’ez, with remnant of book marker made out of colored thread. U.Iowa MS xMs U584etb