Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

06 September 2017

A rough guide to making a manuscript

Tonight, when you pick up your book, observe the legacy of sewn gatherings in the fixings of the pages. Discern, in your fountain pen, the memory of the hollow feather.

What follows is a general, Wiki-How-style overview of how a medieval manuscript would have been fashioned. The craft flourished for over 1,000 years and dominates the material foundation of Western literary culture.

A page from a medieval manuscript that has been vigorously scraped.
A page which bears the scars of vigorous scraping, which have become ingrained with dirt over the years: from a Bible, Central France (Tours), 1st half of the 9th century, Harley MS 2805, f. 149r

1. Make your parchment

You may choose to outsource parchment but, just for the sake of it, here's the process:

  • Source an animal, such as a cow, sheep or goat.
  • For high-quality pages, select an unblemished skin (skins are a consequence of meat production, as much in the Middle Ages as today).
  • Remove hair by soaking the skin in lime for a few days and rubbing over a wooden stump.
  • Stretch skin on a frame and scrape with a curved blade to get rid of all the flesh.
  • Stitch fly-bites or tears with strips of parchment.
  • Dry the stretched skin in a warm place.

A hole in a manuscript page from the Sherborne Cartulary. A stitched hole in a page from a 12th-century Gospel-book.

Fly-bites received while the animal lived grow when the skin is stretched and dried. Larger flaws can be stitched: examples from the Sherborne Cartulary, 2nd quarter of the 12th century, Add MS 46487, f. 48r (top) and a 12th-century Gospel-book from St Augustine's, Canterbury, Royal MS 1 B XI, f. 53r (bottom).

2. Prepare your gatherings (or quires)

  • Cut sheets from your parchment. You may need more than one skin for each gathering of sheets. If you’re making a deluxe Bible, you may need thousands.
  • Fold your sheets into bifolia (Latin for two leaves, or pages).
  • Prick your sheets as a guide for ruling, using a knife or other metal point.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing pricking marks.
Pricking marks on folio 38v of Add MS 46487.

  • Rule your sheets in dry-point (using a sharp-ish stylus) or lead-point. Ruling defines the position, number and spacing of the lines of text per folio (page or leaf). If you (and your patron) are feeling flush, leave nice big margins and lots of space between lines.

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing rulings without any writing.
Royal MS 1 B XI, f. 45*r, how pages might have looked prior to writing.

  • Assemble your bifolia into a gathering or quire. It is quite common for quires to consist of four bifolia (called quaternians), which will give you eight folios. Books are made up of multiple quires, stacked and stitched together.

A diagram showing the assembling of a gathering or quire.

3. Write your text

  • Prepare your quill, which may be a goose feather and can be sourced from the bank of a lake in late summer when they moult. The wing your feather comes from will be the opposite from the hand you write with. In Latin, penna (wing) is the root of our word ‘pen’. Incidentally, it’s also the root of ‘penne’ pasta which, like a quill, is a hollow cylinder!

A drawing of a goose, showing where a quill feather is taken from.

  • It will need regular sharpening with your pen-knife (which is the origin of the modern term).
  • Prepare your ink, perhaps a dark ink made from oak galls.
  • Decide in advance or on-the-go where to leave gaps for illustrations and decorative initials. Making a note of the page order, you may want to separate your bifolia so that you have a single-layer, flat surface to write on. 
  • Choose your script. Scripts in the Middle Ages were very prescribed (excuse the tautology). What you use will vary according to the time and area in which you live (maybe half-uncial in 8th-century Northumbria, English Caroline minuscule in late 10th-century Winchester) and the nature of the book (majuscule, minuscule, cursive and so on).
  • Start writing! You may be copying meticulously from an exemplar. 

4. Decorate!

It is unusual for manuscripts to be the product of a single person's labour. Certainly at the decorating stage, multiple hands are likely to be at work.

  • Do under-drawings in crayon or lead-point and outline.
  • Apply gesso (a mixture containing gum) to areas intended for gilding. This might be stained red.

A gilded illustration of the Annunciation to the Shepherds.
In a 12th-century image of the angel appearing to the shepherds, the red gesso is visible through the worn gilding: Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 6v.

  • Carefully apply the fragile gold leaf and burnish (polish). The gold will stick to gesso, the red tone of which enhances its warm glow.
  • Apply pigments made from organic (usually plant-based) and inorganic (mineral) ingredients, suspended in a water soluble medium such as egg yolk.

A page from a medieval manuscript, with unfinished border decorations.   A page from a medieval manuscript, with an unfinished decorated initial.
Royal MS 1 B XI, ff. 9r and 72r, are unfinished.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing the ruling, under-drawing and ink outline on a page.
Royal MS 1 B XI, f. 72r, detail showing the ruling, under-drawing and ink outline.  

5. Bind your book

  • Sew along the spine of each gathering.
  • Now, sew your quires together at evenly spaced sewing stations along their spine (see drawing of binding process) and affix long cords across to them.
  • Sew end bands to the top and bottom for extra reinforcement.


A diagram of a wooden log, used to construct a binding. A diagram showing the construction of a binding for a manuscript.

  • Source your book-boards for the front and back covers. In Northern Europe, book boards were commonly made from quarter sawn slabs (see drawing of tree-trunk) of dense, durable timbers such as oak and beech.
  • Thread the cords into holes and channels in your two book-boards, binding them to the edges of the spine.
  • Cover with leather and hide the cut edges on the inside covers with paste downs. Odds and ends from around the workshop will do.

Wooden boards used as a binding for a medieval manuscript.
Notice how the ends of the boards of this 12th-century binding show short sections of the growth rings of the tree. Cutting the board this way ensured the least amount of warping as the wood dried: Add MS 46487.

Optional Extra: decorate your binding

  • Sheets of precious metal, ivory plaques, roman gems and jewels will enhance your binding no end. But be warned, these rarely stand the test of time, being a particular favourite of plundering invaders, wont to rip treasure-encrusted bindings from their pages.  

A 12th-century manuscript binding.A small enamel added to a manuscript binding during the 13th century.
The 12th-century binding of Add MS 46487 has been carved to receive a plaque or some other decoration. At some point in the later 13th century, this was replaced with a small Limoges enamel, affixed upside down.

And voilà, you should now have made your own medieval manuscript. Easy, isn't it?

Visit our Medieval England and France website to learn more about how to make a medieval manuscript, to read beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to learn about medieval science, medicine and monastic libraries.


Further reading and links:

M. P. Brown & P. Lovett, The Historical Source Book for Scribes (London, 1999)

Under the Covers: the conservation and rebinding of Fitzwilliam MS 251 [accessed 31/08/2017]

Short Documentary: How Parchment is Made - Domesday - BBC Two [accessed 31/08/2017]

Amy Jeffs

with thanks to Jessica Pollard

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As a professor of paleography,'m pleased that I'll be able to recommend your site highly to my students and colleagues.

Isn't the Latin for wing / feather penna, rather than pennus?

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