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Scribal 101
- by Countess Inga the Unfettered, OL OP​


​'Manuscript' means literally 'written by hand' and while writing or recording images has occurred since our earliest history, not all that has been written can be termed manuscript. Means of 'writing by hand' have included scratching or pressing marks into wet clay, carving or chiselling them into stone, impressing into wax tablets or recording on rolled papyrus scrolls. It is not until around 1stC AD, when the scroll gave way to the codex – separate pages that can be turned and read in succession : the book form we know today – that the history of manuscripts properly begins. The development of the codex changed the nature of recording and accessing information by offering a format that allowed the reader to easily move back and forth within the text. The flat page format of the codex also permitted a level of artistic expression that wasn't possible in a rolled scroll. The term illuminated – originally reserved to describe decoration that involved the application of gold leaf - now is more broadly used to refer to any manuscript with decorative elements. Manuscripts were hand written with quill or reed pens on vellum (the prepared skin of cows, goats and sheep) and decorated with gold and pigments (paint) made from chemicals, plants, minerals and a host of odd substances. This process of handcrafting written works continues up to the 15thc when the introduction of the printing press marked virtually the end of illuminated manuscript production.

So how is all this relevant as a scribe in the SCA?

Well when people in the SCA are given awards or honoured in some way, we like to give them a fancy piece of paper to commemorate these moments. These pieces of paper have come to be called scrolls (which is odd because they aren't rolled up at all) and the royalty of the SCA regularly call upon people interested in illumination or calligraphy to make them. When faced with the task of making a beautiful scroll it makes sense to draw upon the great wealth of the history of manuscripts as inspiration.

Do some research!

Knowing a bit about the history of manuscript illumination and becoming familiar with the different tools, techniques, scripts and styles of illumination will only help you to create a scroll that is both beautiful and medieval (well medieval-ish). Most scribes use modern pens, inks and paints (gouache) on paper to create their scrolls but a great deal is known about the tools and materials used by the medieval scribe so you can really be as medieval as you want. It's not a as expensive as you might expect and the results can be spectacular. Either way doing some research before beginning a scroll is the first step towards creating a piece that is not just a thing of the SCA but has some of the medieval illuminated manuscript in it.

Scrolls in the SCA

There are two types of scroll currently used in Avacal.

  • Original scrolls – someone or several someones have handcrafted it and it is a one-of a kind original. Often very beautiful but sometimes quite simple.
  • Charters – someone has crafted a scroll design without all the details or the recipients name or date of issue – which has then been photocopied to nice paper and carefully hand painted. Charters came into use to help royalty to be able to give out more scrolls (and fewer promissories) without working their scribes to the bone. While the design is not one-of-a-kind the hand painting is and the result can often be even lovelier than any original scroll.

How are SCA scrolls different than our 'period' sources?

The biggest difference to consider is format. While SCA scrolls and manuscript pages are both flat pages an SCA scroll is designed as a stand alone page while a manuscripts is typically designed in conjunction with the facing page and as part of an overall scheme. This means that you need to evaluate how well the source page you use works on its own.

The second is biggest difference is intent. Manuscripts were produced for a number of reasons – religious, educational, literary, and historical but never as awards or grants as in the SCA– well at least not till very late (16th C). This means the imagery is designed for a purpose that has little to do with what we do in the SCA. It also means that things like seals and signatures were not part of the design. Finding clever and aesthetically pleasing ways to incorporate these fairly large SCA elements is one of the hardest design hurdles.

Finding ways to work from period sources but still balance the purpose and required elements of an SCA scroll is the biggest challenge you face as an SCA scribe.

Finally the process differs greatly – the medieval scribe was just one of the many people who worked on a manuscript. A crew of craftsmen were involved. Manuscript production was not unlike an assembly line, with each portion crafted by a person trained and often specializing in that skill set. As an SCA scribe we do not typically work with a crew of people to create a scroll and so are generally expected to master all the skills involved. This can be quite daunting. While it is possible (and pretty neat too) to master all of the skills and techniques involved, the fact is that we can still share the tasks involved in making a scroll. If you do not have a knack for calligraphy, find someone who does. Don't be put off pursuing the scribal arts because one element of it does not appeal to you. You may not have a huge crew of skilled artisans working with you on a scroll but you need not work on it alone either.

Questions?? Suggestions??  Contact me at michelle.height@ualberta.ca!

Want to Learn More?

Alexander, Jonathan, Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work, Yale University Press, New Haven 1992.

Backhouse, Janet, The Illuminated Page: 10 Centuries of Manuscript Painting in the British Library, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1998.

Brown, Michelle, Understanding Illuminating Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms, The J. Paul Getty Museum and the British Library Board, London, 1994.

De Hamel, Christopher, Scribes and Illuminators: Medieval Craftsman Series, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1992.

De Hamel, Christopher, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts, Phaidon, London, 1986.

De Hamel, Christopher, The British Library guide to Manuscript Illumination – History and Techniques, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2001.

Drogin, Marc, Medieval Calligraphy – It's History and Technique, Dover Publications Inc. New York, 1980.

Jackson, Donald, The History of Writing, Taplinger Publishing Co., New York, 1981.
Johnston, Edward, Writing & Illuminating & Lettering, Pitman & Sons, London, 1932.

Lamb, C.M., Ed., The Calligrapher's Handbook, Faber & Faber, London, 1968.

The Craftsman's Handbook "Il Libro dell'Arte" Cennino d'Andrea Cennini, Translated By Daniel Thompson, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1960.

Theophilus On Divers Arts, The Foremost Medieval treatise on Painting, Glassmaking and Metalwork, Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1979.

Thompson, Daniel, The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1956.

Watson, Rowan, Illuminated Manuscripts and Their Makers, V& A Publications, London, 2003.

Wilson, Elizabeth, Bibles and Bestiaries : A Guide to Illuminated Manuscripts, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1994.

Wong, Frederick, The Complete Calligrapher,: Watson-Guptill, New York 1980.​



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