Medieval Ink

Scrivener’s Table

I should have written this post a couple of weeks ago after I wrote about vellum, but I couldn’t find a reference to a recipe. This week, however, I’ve found three. Ink is one of those things that always makes me think ‘what thought process made them think of that?’. I understand why you would start with something like ash or soot mixed with water or vinegar. If you want to write something down it probably needs to be dark and it definitely needs to be liquid. Mixing certain types of ash with vinegar did produce a form of usable ink, especially if mixed with gum arabic, but it clogged up pens and it faded quickly. When it comes to the final recipe, though, I don’t know what made someone take the final leap that made it work.

At the top of the post you can see the photograph I took of a scrivener’s table at a re-enactment event I went to a few years ago. Although he was getting ready to go off with Henry V to fight at Agincourt in 1415 (hence the bow beside the table), most of his equipment would have been used by fourteenth century scriveners as well. You can see that he uses feathers for pens and has the necessary blades to cut and shape them. He also has everything that he needs to make ink.

Ash and vinegar served for a while, but, in the seventh century, a new, more effective ink was created. The recipe for this version of it dates from 1393 and was included in his guide for his wife (The Good Wife’s Guide) by Le Ménagier de Paris:
Take two ounces each of galls and gum arabic and three ounces of copperas. Break the galls and soak them for three days, then boil in three half gallons of rainwater or water from a still pond. And when they have boiled long enough so that nearly half the water has boiled off – that is, there is only about three quarts left – take off the fire, and add the copperas and gum, and stir until cool. Store in a cold, damp place. Note that after three weeks it will spoil.

There is so much to notice in this, not least that the recipe produces three quarts (six pints) of ink which only lasts for three weeks. There must have been a lot of wastage with a pen made out of a feather to make it necessary to make six pints of ink every three weeks and, given that it takes the best part of four days to make a new batch, you couldn’t afford to run out before you made some more. It wasn’t the kind of thing that you could run out to the shops to buy. On the other hand, it was something that everyone who used it knew how to make.

So, let’s look at the ingredients of ink. In the photograph of the scrivener you can see a bowl of small balls. These are the galls. They are made by gall wasps in oak trees and are also known as oak apples. The wasp lays an egg in a leaf bud and the larva injects a chemical into it so that the bud forms a protective layer around the larva. When I first heard about oak apples, I thought they were a natural product of the tree. Then, learning that it had something to do with wasps, I assumed that it was something secreted by the wasps. Now I know that it’s a bit of both. The important ingredient that galls provided was tannin.

Gum arabic is hardened acacia sap. It’s used a lot in foods today – chewing gum (not surprisingly), marshmallows and ‘gummy’ sweets. It’s also used in cosmetics and paints. It comes in a solid and a powdered form. Mainly it’s used as a thickener, which is its role in ink.

Copperas is iron (or ferrous) sulphate. It dissolves in water. This is the part of ink production that causes my ‘why did they think that would work?’ reaction. I can see why someone would try ground oak apples, as they’re dark when ground, but why would you add copperas? Copperas is a manufactured substance, which makes it worse. I have read that it came about because an iron nail fell into the mixture, but that seems very random to me. If you have any information to add to this, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel by Frances and Joseph Gies
The Good Wife’s Guide by Le Ménagier de Paris, Trans Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose
How to be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Medieval Life

18 responses to “Medieval Ink

  1. Losing the Plot

    My observation is surprise that it took that long to arrive at the recipe for ink. People had been dying fabrics and using mordant to fix those dyes for such a long time – I’m guessing the iron here is doing the same job?
    It’s just seems to have taken an awfully long time for someone who makes ink to talk to someone who dyes cloth?

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I’ve been working my way through Kassia St Clair’s fascinating The Secret Lives of Colour and have had quite a few ‘whatever made them think of that’ moments, particularly with the more noisome, sometimes downright dangerous combinations.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes seems odd they could make dyes but not ink. I’m quite fascinated by the oak apple being a wasp thing.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Another eye-opening post, April! The sheer volume of ink one batch produced is especially intriguing. I’m curious why there was so much waste, and why people couldn’t afford to run out, necessitating such a large batch!

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    • I’m assuming that there was waste, but also the ink would have been thicker than ink used in fountain pens today, so it would not have gone as far. I can only assume that a lot of writing was done in that household. If, as I suppose, the husband had a business, there were records to be kept which probably kept a scrivener busy all day.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. ‘why did they think that would work?’ – Probably for the same reason those on a quest used mercury for immortality formulas, or lost their job, family, income, etc., while they tried to find the ‘right formula’ for car tires, etc. over all of history – they were passionate about finding ‘what would work’ and just kept testing, trying, killing themselves or others, in their quest to ‘get the answer’/formula/how to’ – – :D. That said, I’m so happy your quest to ‘learn more/research’ hasn’t yet killed ya – because, well – we all have our passions and pursuits – -but I do so enjoy reading your posts and would be sad if your quest for ‘how it used to be done’ ended up ending the post share of info!!! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you :-). I have the kind of mind that always wonders how many people died finding out that a certain berry or fruit was poisonous.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I always liked the description/story put forth in the series by Jean M. Auel (Clan of the Cave Bear) when Iza taught her how to test, in small amounts, on herself, when they traveled to an area and found plants that were ‘similar’ to past one’s used, but not ‘quite’ the same – – I’m currently taking a “learn your plants’/Botany in a Day course (and I’m on month 3, and only have 10 of the 53 modules done – LOL – but, figure someday, it may come in useful ‘to know’ – LOL. One of the ‘cliches’ used to ‘remember’ is ‘hairy vine? No friend of mine…” – I like the ‘old ways’ of learning things – it works with my storyteller loving mind – 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        • I haven’t read Clan of the Cave Bear, but Auel clearly lies awake at night thinking about these kind of things as well. Your botany course sounds interesting. I can barely remember the names of all the herbs in my garden.

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