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Teaching with Medieval Books in Special Collections

This guide covers resources in Special Collections related to medieval European books, especially medieval manuscripts and early printed books (sometimes called "incunables").

Paper and Parchment

Medieval Europeans chiefly wrote on either parchment or paper. Parchment, sometimes also called vellum, is a term for animal skins, usually sheep- or goatskins, that have been carefully scraped to provide a smooth writing surface. It was the dominant writing surface of choice after the first and second centuries CE and, even after its use as a writing material waned, it was still frequently used for bookbinding. Paper, having been invented in ancient China, came to Europe via the Muslim civilizations of the Middle East at some point in the twelfth century. Medieval paper was made of linen rags and was produced by hand. It was the preferred medium for print, though sometimes a print run would include luxury copies printed on vellum.

The following videos are included below:

  • How parchment is made. This is part of a longer 2015 documentary about the Domesday Book and presents the stages of parchment production from raw skin being soaked in lime to dried parchment.
  • Listening to the Medieval Book. This conversation between two scholars about two medieval books written on different grades of parchment highlights the different costs of producing different medieval books.
  • Chancery Papermaking. A methodical look at the hand production of paper describing the roles of each individual person working in the paper mill and walking the viewer through the production process. This documentary was prepared at the University of Iowa’s Center for the Book and narrated by Tim Barrett, one of the leading paper experts working today.
  • Chancery Papermaking 2016 – 2000 Sheets in One Day. This documentary was made at the University of Iowa’s Center for the Book when they managed to make 2,000 sheets of paper in a single work day, the usual production rate of a medieval or early modern paper shop. Tim Barrett’s narration highlights the benefits from such experiments, particularly in terms of learning how the craft was once practiced.


Writing and Illuminating Manuscripts

Medieval European manuscripts were written in a variety of different hands, each introducing its own variations on the alphabet. They were also often illuminated with beautiful decorations, both in the margins and within the text itself. 

The following videos are included below:

  • An introduction to Medieval scripts. This short conversation between two scholars about medieval scripts at the National Library of the Netherlands discusses differences between Carolingian miniscule and Gothic script, which can be used to set up a discussion of paleography and how scripts change over time and space.
  • Writing — NYPL’s Three Faiths Scriptorium. This short documentary on writing from the New York Public Library discusses the mechanics of scribing several alphabets — Hebrew, Greek, blackletter, and Arabic — right down to the angles at which the pens are held, as well as a brief discussion of scribing's spiritual dimensions in the European Christian, Hebrew, and Muslim traditions.
  • Pens, Paint-making, and Illumination — NYPL's Three Faiths Scriptorium. This short documentary shows the production of quills and reed pens, followed by a brief presentation of illumination and applying gold leaf to a manuscript.
  • The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry. A guided tour of an exhibition of a disbound Book of Hours at the Met, this video walks the viewer through the production the illuminations in the book.
  • The Alchemy of Color and Chemical Change in Medieval Manuscripts. This short documentary at the Getty Museum shows the toxic elements used in some medieval paints and discusses the oxidation of paints.

Making Manuscripts: Videos from the British Library

This series of short documentaries from the British Library takes you through different aspects of medieval manuscript production. The documentaries can be watched in any order, but have been arranged here to provide a chronological overview of different aspects of manuscript production:

  • Vellum
  • The Page
  • Quills
  • Oak Gall Ink
  • Paints
  • Pigments
  • Making Miniatures

Incunable Printing

Moveable type was invented in Asia but was not widely used due to the logographic nature of Asian languages, meaning that most Asian printers relied on xylography and other forms of block printing. In Europe, moveable type was invented separately by the goldsmith and merchant Johannes Gutenberg, drawing on processes from numerous extant technologies. Further innovations followed and the specific details of Gutenberg's own press have been lost, but within a few years, the printing press had largely taken the form it would retain throughout the rest of the handpress period until the mechanization of printing in the nineteenth century.

The following videos are included below:

  • The Print Workshop in the Fifteenth Century. This documentary from the Cambridge University Library briefly discusses the history and mechanics of the early hand press.
  • The Making of a Renaissance Book. This documentary was shot in 1969 at the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, which maintains a seventeenth-century print shop, and was remastered by the Rare Book School in 2004. Topics covered include: cutting a type punch; making a copper strike and justifying the matrix; casting and dressing the type; composition, imposition, and proof-reading; inking and running off the sheets; and stop-press corrections.