Author Archives: The Scribes

Egg Yolk Binder

For the paint, we created an egg yolk binder.


  1. Separate the yolk from egg white.
  2. Gently place egg yolk on paper towel.
  3. Carefully roll it around, drying off the membrane, until all egg white is gone.
  4. Using thumb and first two fingers, very gently pick up yolk and hold over container.
  5. With a small sharp object, pierce the bottom of the yolk and squeeze out contents. Discard empty membrane.
  6. Add two teaspoons of water for each yolk and stir.

Binder is now ready to be mixed into paint and used!

The recipe is not as easy as it sounds. Keeping the membrane from bursting is the greatest challenge. It is particularly vulnerable as you separate the yolk from the egg whites, as well as when you are drying off the egg whites from the membrane using a paper towel.

Two eggs were set aside for this process and produced more binder than needed for illuminating two pages.



Yoga Breaks for Scribes

Illuminating the manuscript is intensely taxing work. The arms, back, neck and eyes are particularly strained. I cringe at the thought of what it must have been like to produce these pages without my comfy chair and electric lighting.

I think medieval scribes would have benefited from something like this:

Testing the Quill Pen

On a scrap of parchment we tested the modern nib pen (its the closeted nib shape to a quill that we could find, because apparently you can’t buy a quill in this town). The nib end of the nib is rounded and bent to create a tip that isn’t pointed and sharp like out modern nibs which would scratch the surface of the parchment. The only major difference between our modern nib and a feather quill, besides the materials, is that we wouldn’t have to re-sharpen the metal nib, whereas you do have to re-sharpen a quill with a sharp knife.

(For more quill information see:  Making of Illuminated Manuscripts 2011, Encyclopedia of Art, viewed 24 July, 2011, <;.)

The results:

  • the angle that you hold the pen at determines the width of the line
  • you have to constantly dip you pen in more ink because it runs out quickly due to the fact that the pen doesn’t have an ink reservoir
  • when you first set the pen down on the paper right after you’ve dipped it in ink you have to be careful that it doesn’t create a large ink blot
  • writing and drawing are pretty easy, the nib moves smoothly across the paper
  • although curvilinear forms are challenging to make
  • in order to keep your lines of a consistent thickness, you will have to re-trace them, which is easier with thick lines then it is with thin lines, which is also challenging when you have varying ink levels on your nib and have to concentrate on keeping you pen held at the same angle
  • its hard to create perfectly straight lines

Fun, but time consing and challenging. It would take a lot of practice for a monk to successfully create the complex interlace images and text that are present in the Book of Durrow.

Trying the Pen

Alison trying the quill pen

Sizing the Pages

 We have decided to make our pages the original sizes from the Book of Durrow, which are 24.2 x 15.5 cm. Because of this we have discovered that we didn’t initially purchase enough parchment. I can only imagine how much of a problem this would be for a monk working a scriptorium to not have enough parchment. Apparently a single manuscript could take as many as 300 sheep hides.

We will be folding a piece of parchment in half , which is a technique done in the medieval period with a tool called a bone folder. This allowed the folded pages to be scored and sit flatly without being fully cut apart.

Pictures and reports of our progress to follow…

A note on binding

As the Gospel of St. Cuthbert was produced in Ethiopic style (Federici & Pascalicchio p. 206), and is contemporary to the Book of Durrow this is the style which we will employ in the binding of our recreation. This method utilizes one to seven sets of paired sewing stations attached to wooden boards on either side of the codex (Szirmai p. 46). A length of binding thread is first anchored to the adjacent sewing stations at its midpoint by creating anchor loops through holes cut in the board (diagram below) (Szirmai p. 46). Each loose end is then threaded through a needle and the two ends are used simultaneously to create the stitching pattern (Szirmai p. 46). The threads are looped backwards over earlier stitches to lock the quires together in a chain stitch (see link below).

Ethiopic board hole diagram

The TRLN Bookbinders have posted some excellent photos of ethiopic bindings that they have recreated:

Federici C & Pascalicchio F 1993, ‘A Census of Medieval Bookbingings: Early Examples’, in M Maniaci & PL Munafò (eds), Ancient and Medieval Book Materials and Tequniques, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Città del Vaticano.

Szirmai, JA 1999, The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbonding, Ashgate, Aldershot/Brookfield.

Drafting the Pages

We started off with an ambitious goal: 8 pages to show a variety of images, carpet pages and text within the Book of Durrow. This was edited down to four to fit the time line. After drafting the pages last night, this has turned into three. Our underestimation of the work involved in a singer page was vast. The idea that we could recreate one of the complex carpet page in a day was delusional. The project goes on.

There was talk of making our manuscript half the size of the original. This will not be possible as the lines are so fine and detailed within the images that the ink would not have room to separate and likely smudge. Hopefully, we can avoid these flaws with full size images, though it will be a challenge. Even drafting the images on a smaller sized sheet of paper was a challenge compared to using a full sheet. While these drafts were not to scale, they did give some idea of the space needed to recreate these images.

Much like the artists of the Book of Durrow, a compass and ruler will be used to draft the images. There are also simple mathematical equations outlined in the article ‘The Shapes of the Book of Durrow’ for determining the border size and inner panels which will be recorded in the final report. Furthermore, one article entitled ‘The Four Evangelist Symbols Page in the Book of Durrow’ by Martin Werner states that the full-page symbols were influenced by the order of St. Ireneus.

The three pages that will be recreated include:

  • Four Evangelist Symbols 2r (Classic introductory page, with full page cross)
  • Gospel of St. Mark 86 (Example of an illuminated text page)
  • Gospel of Matthew 21v (Full-page symbol and interlace border)

Questions that arose through the process:

  • How many people were involved in the creation the Book of Durrow?
  • How many hours did it take to produce one carpet page?

The Gospel Book of Durrow: Historical Context

The Rise of Christianity in the British Isles

At the peak of the Roman Empire their territory stretched from the Italian Peninsula to Britain. Although, their territory officially ended at Hadrian’s Wall, Ireland was still able to experience Roman culture through trade and travel (Snyder, Luttikhuizen & Verkerk 2006, p. 138). For instance, the monastic settlements at Iona, Scotland and Durrow, Ireland were established ca. 550 by St Columba (d. 597) (Snyder, Luttikhuizen & Verkerk 2006, p. 139). These became important religious and socio-political centers. However, the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 separated the budding Christian monastic sites from their Roman Christian origins. Despite this disconnect, Pope Gregory the Great (r. 590-604) ordered missionaries back into the area in 597 (Stokstad 2008, p. 446). They were specifically sent to the Anglo-Saxon king Ethelbert of Kent whose Christian wife was willing to help their cause. The missions headed by St Augustine (d. 604) encountered specific conflict over the syncretic religious practices that had been developed by the isolated Celtic Christians (Stokstad 2008, p. 446). Although, these tensions did eventually come to an end, traditional Anglo-Saxon art forms continues a unique combination of paganism with the new Christian iconography that appears in martial culture, such as illuminated manuscripts.


Manuscript Production

Manuscript production played an important part of social economic and political organizations through the centuries. The form of the bound codex came into being in the 1st century (Stokstad 2008, p. 251). Its portable format allowed the technology of bookbinding and illumination to travel the expansive Roman Empire and be created in different royal and religious centers. In the early medieval period during the 6th to 7th century Gospel books were highly valued for their ability to contain and transmit the glory of the Christian religion. These lavish books were made in a scriptorium by monks through an expensive and time-consuming process. After all the expensive materials were collected and prepared a letterer (copisti) would write in the text, occasionally leaving room for decoration, which was done by an artist (illuminator) (Meggs & Purvis 2006, p. 42). Included in a few illuminated manuscripts is a page of inscription called a colophon containing information about who made the codex as well as where and when it was made.


The Gospel of Durrow

One of the earliest surviving Irish illuminated manuscripts is the Gospel of Durrow (MS 57, Trinity College). Made in ca. 680 at either Iona or Durrow the style of the artwork suggests that Irish scribes illuminated the codex (Meggs & Purvis 2006, p. 44). The colophon curiously states that St Columba wrote the codex. Although untrue, this pious addition reflects the association of this prestige item with an important Christian saint, probably to increase its status through divine association (Snyder, Luttikhuizen & Verkerk 2006, p. 139). The Gospel of Durrow utilizes a fully developed repertoire of hybrid Christian models and insular (Anglo-Saxon and Irish) art forms. Within the illuminated manuscript are pages of text beginning with an incipit at the start of each Gospel. As well, full pages of decoration known as carpet pages face another page of decoration with the symbol of the evangelist whose text they preference. A special feature in image of the man (Matthew’s symbol) is the tonsure hairstyle he wears. This identifies him as a monk of the early Celtic church (Stokstad 2008, p. 448). The codex is done on suede-like parchment that is highly receptive to the black ink and yellow, red and green tempura. The images themselves appear to be similar to Irish or Scandinavian metalwork of the same era (Snyder, Luttikhuizen & Verkerk 2006, p. 139). Enforcing this impression is the lack of natural space or ground lines for the figures to anchor themselves to, making them seem as through they are a decorative piece of metal work attached to the page contributing their prestige to the codex (Snyder, Luttikhuizen & Verkerk 2006, p. 139). Decorative borders play a large role framing each of the images and carpet pages. Each is unique and presents a complex pattern of interwoven geometric forms that can turn into figural serpent forms. The interlace ribbon is also coloured in such a way that it creates another layer of visual pattern to the image, they shift and change depending on location. Spirals and trumpet shapes warp themselves through and around Christian motifs, such as a cross or evangelist symbol.



Clarke, M 2004, ‘Anglo-saxon manuscript pigments’, Studies in Conservation, vol. 49, no. 4, pp. 231-244, viewed 7 July 2011,

Meggs, P & Purvis, A 2006, Megg’s History of graphic design, 4th edn, John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey.

Snyder, J, Luttikhuizen, H & Verkerk, V 2006, Art of the middle ages, Pearson Prentice Hall, New Jersery.

Stokstad, M 2008, Art history, 3rd edn, Pearson Prentice Hall, New Jersey.

Pages from the Gospel of Durrow

Four Evangelist Symbols

Four Evangelist Symbols fol. 2r

Carpet Page with Double Armed Cross

Carpet Page with Double Armed Cross fol. 1v

Capet Page

Carpet Page fol. 3v

Gospel of Matthew

Gospel of Matthew fol. 21v

Carpet Page

Carpet Page fol. 125v

Lion of St Mark

Lion of St Mark fol. 191v

Carpet Page

Carpet Page fol. 192v

Gospel of St Mark

Gospel of St Mark fol. 86


First image source: Werner, M 1990, ‘The Cross-Carpet Page in the Book of Durrow: The Cult of the True Cross, Adomnan, and Iona’, Art Bulletin, vol. 72, no. 2, p. 77.

Second-Seventh images source: Digital Image Database Online 2007, History in Art, Victoria, viewed 13 July, 2011, <;.

Why Linen Thread?

Linen thread was used because of its ability to expand with humidity which minimizes any chance of tearing the pages. Multiple reenactment organizations’ pages which tackle medieval book binding techniques add that coating the linen thread in beeswax increases its resiliency to moist conditions. According to an in-class speaker for Medieval Anthropology 392 on July 11, linen string was used for shoe making. For this craft the thread was also coated in beeswax so that it could better withstand water exposure.

The Project Proposal

Technology Type

Our aim is to recreate a portion of the Gospel Book of Durrow (MS 57, Trinity College, Dublin). This is a medieval Christian manuscript from the northern British Isles. It is believed to have been produced either in a scriptorium at Durrow, Ireland, or Iona, Scotland ca. 680 AD. We will approximate 7th century Irish techniques of calligraphy, illumination, and binding to reproduce selected folios from the Gospel of Durrow that include script, illumination, a carpet page of Celtic interlace decoration, and an incipit.

Research Questions

1. How does tempura preparation and drying time constrain the progress of creating illuminated manuscript images?

2. How does needle size affect the ease of stitching parchment, and what is the optimal needle thickness for the parchment we have obtained?

3. Based on the level of interconnectivity between the case and codex, to what extent would the replacement of case affect the codex?

Required Materials

The materials used in the production of this bound codex were ink and tempura on 24.2 cm x 15.5 cm parchment. The black was created using a fine soot (known as lamp black) mixed with water and gum, which was applied with a quill. We will approximate this by utilizing non-waterproof India ink, as it is composed of analogous materials. The tempura paint used to create the manuscript was prepared through mixing naturally occurring pigments, such as ochre or oxidized metals, with an egg based binder. Finely prepared smooth parchment, of either calf or sheep leather, depending on geographical area and era, was folded and trimmed into book size pages and decorated first with text and then miniatures and other forms of decoration. Once the folios were complete all the pages were bound together using linen thread.

Itemized List:

· Parchment

· Tempura ink ingredients: egg, charcoal, and pigments (Grocery Store, Opus)

· Quills (Opus)

· Scrap leather for case (Fabric store)

· Binding Needles (Alison and Alicia)

· Linen Thread (Fabric store)

· Non-waterproof India Ink (Devin)

Potential Difficulties & Proposed Solutions

As we will be producing the tempura ink for the first time, there is a worry that the consistency of the ink will make it difficult to use in the reproduction. To address this, those involved in manufacturing the ink will allocate time for experimenting with the proportions of the ink recipe, as well as researching past manuscript reproductions. Additionally, as it may be difficult to produce smooth text on the parchment’s uneven texture, pieces of parchment shall be set aside for practice before the images are copied onto the final reproduction. Lastly, there is concern over potential damage, such as ripping of the parchment at the puncture points, during the binding process. For this reason, the group will ensure that enough parchment is purchased for practising the technique and establishing the appropriate needle diameter before starting the final production.

Time Line

JULY 2011

Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday

-Project proposal edited and submitted


-Materials divided amongst group members


-Specific pages from the Book of Durrow chosen

13 14

-Rough sketch of the pages completed

– Preliminary research on bookbinding techniques and case completed

15 16
17 18

-Completed pages will be handed over for binding

19 20 21

-Binding shall be completed


-Reproduced Manuscript shall be turned in

-Final written report shall be discussed

-Group members shall begin their section of the final report

24 25 26 27

-Separate section shall be compiled

-Editing of the final report will begin

28 29

-Submission of the final report