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What's There to Know about Books?

A guide for attendees of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute course, summer 2024.


Note: These videos and links are for further reading and viewing after class. No preparation for class is required.

Parchment and Paper

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.

Items referenced in the presentation