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