Writing tools for going to Universities

I started this just after Kingdom University, and then got sidetracked by becoming quite horribly ill.  Let’s just say I don’t recommend meddling in the affairs of pneumonia germs, they are subtle and quick to knock you off your ass and lay you low for weeks. I’m finding it difficuly to try and fit myself back in the brainspace of post University me, so I think I shall just quote the draft as it was:

“Last weekend there was a great gathering of people interested in the Arts and Sciences from around the Kingdom of Drachenwald at the very beautiful Ufton Court near Theale in the UK.  Since my very first event I think my preference for all things A&S has been pretty marked (I want to learn ALL THE THINGS!)  This was my first Kingdom level University and it would be very difficult to overstate how fantastic I found everything – and that’s even after taking into account the fact that various missteps and disasters along the way meant it cost me a lot more than my original budget to get there.   The venue was gorgeous.  The attendees were full of the enthusiastically helpful and sharing spirit that makes me love the SCA, and the company marvelous.

The biggest problem with Universities generally is choosing what classes to take, I wanted to do them all.  In the end I chose the classes that were closest to my current projects.  They were all excellent and inspirational. I ended up trying out parchment, learning a pounce recipe, learning how to make pigments, and tons of stuff about pewtering.  If I could arrange to stay forever at a SCA University I think I would be the happiest human on the planet.

A thing I learned in addition to the classes: There is nothing quite like a Kingdom level A&S event to reveal how much you need to pull up your socks and get some decent garb sorted.

waxtabletI decided to enter the A&S competition as I’ve been trying to pluck up the courage to enter competitions generally, and I was very surprised (an actual jaw drop moment) and happy to have the wax tablet I made for Mistress Melisende chosen as the winner.  My thanks for her very kind permission to bring it along to the event with me.   I still have a happy little glow remembering kind things people told or wrote to me afterwards.

As a former student of Classical history I have been aware of the existence and widespread use of wax tablets or pugillares throughout the classical world. I had believed for some time that they were a more ancient than medieval device, but when I came across a fascinating article by Michelle Brown The Role of the Wax Tablet in Medieval Literacy: A reconsideration in light of a recent find from York, I spent some time looking for more examples and discovered plenty of evidence that they continued to be used right through our period of interest.  There is a vast range of surviving examples as well as depictions in illumination, they range from quite plain to richly decorated in a range of woods and ivory and in a great variety of sizes.  

The simplest form of the wax tablet is a board with a recess for the wax, but were often combined and hinged to open out like our modern book.   The word codex has its roots in these wooden books, from the Latin caudex meaning tree-trunk.  I imagine that their use grew from a practice of writing on plain wood or sheets of wood bark.  Birch, for example, is a wonderful writing surface as scraping produces quite visible darkened scratches.  However anything written on timber or bark directly was uneditable, the only way to start over would have been to keep taking layers from the surface and start fresh each time.   It’s easy to see how the virtue of a recessed pool of wax – easy to erase and edit many times – would have soon sold itself.    The wax was written on with a pointed stylus and erased with a flat shape on the opposite end of the stylus.  There are a great many variations of size and shape for these as well, with various degrees of ornamentation.   Surviving examples tend to be made from iron, brass, bone and ivory, all materials better suited than wood to survive.  

Folio 323r of Codex Manesse: a portrait of Reinmar
Folio 323r of Codex Manesse: a portrait of Reinmar

I didn’t have a source of boxwood but I did have a handy bit of walnut from some recycled furniture of pretty much perfect thickness.    I felt justified in using it because Michelle Brown’s paper on the York tablets referred to a collection of wax tablets found in Nimrud in 1953, and some of these were made with walnut.  Walnut has a smooth, reasonably dense grain, meaning it would take decent detail when carving but would not be too porous for working with the wax.  

I choose a straightforward rectangular design rather than the more gothic style often seen in Illuminations like  as bitter experience has taught me not to try to get too fancy the first time you try a project.  

Good examples of the rectangular style include  a trove containing the municipal accounts of the Polish town  of  Torun from the 13th-16th centuries highlighted in the UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ Programme in 1992. (A great image can be found here: http://www.unesco-ci.org/photos/showphoto.php/photo/3995/title/collection-of-wax-tablets-of-the-town-of-torun28poland-29-/cat/871  I choose to work on a larger size than the York tablets, for ease of carving decorative features.  

Another surprising thing from my research was just how shallow the wax recess tended to be, but having experimented with deeper “puddles” of wax I did find that they tended to be more difficult to work with, with an inclination to drag too much with the movement of the stylus when writing and to thicken and thin unevenly when trying to erase.  

[5:7] Detail: Set of writing-tablets, Springmount Bog, Co. Antrim. Late sixth/early seventh century ad. The set of six tablets of yew held together by leather straps was found in Springmount Bog, Co. Antrim, at a depth of four feet. The recesses in the tablets contain wax and texts consisting of parts of the Psalms are written on them. The Springmount tablets are the earliest examples of Irish handwriting in a script known as Insular minuscule. The letters were cut into the soft wax with a pointed metal stylus and the quality of the lettering indicates that it was the work of an experienced scribe. The text shown in the detail on page 174 is part of Psalm 31. SA 1914:2. L. 21 cm; W. 7.5 cm. Mullarkey 1991, no. 64.

To give you an idea take a look at this photo of the Wax surface on Springmount Bog Tablet, National Museum of Ireland (No. S.A. 1914: 2) from https://dbsirishstudies.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/tablet-detail.jpg

I gave each of my boards a 1/16” deep  recess for wax.  Terrible confession? I used a router bit as I was running short on time.

inprogressI left the outer surfaces – facing the world and protecting the wax – available for hand carving some decoration.  In keeping with the period styles I was basing this on, I maximised the space for wax leaving just narrow margins to add holes for the hinge straps on the inside edges and one on the outside and to pass a binding cord through.   I decided to add a little strength and decoration with a little shaping on each side at the closure binding point.  

On the outside I again decided to keep it simple for this project and carved just a shield bearing a Maltese cross, the device of Mistress Melisende Fitzwalter, to whom this tablet now belongs.   frontbeforecarving

To accomplish the blackened wax typical of most wax tablets I melted beeswax in a jar in a saucepan of boiling water in two batches and added oak gall ink which I have in abundance at the moment.  I had warmed the wood in preparation for the wax but was afraid of overheating it and causing it to warp or scorch.  I tried pouring the wax which did not end well, but it did do a pretty good young stalagmite impression.  The method I ended up using was painting on the hot wax in thin layers and scraping smooth, but I should have kept the wax heating saucepan on a constant heat source and not worked in a cool workshop as there are distinct white blooms I think are caused by the wax cooling too quickly.    

The hinges I created with cut-to-fit leather straps spot glued and secured with waxed linen thread.  I added a longer tying cord because I love the idea of being able to secure the ‘document’ by binding it up and adding a wax seal.  

arch_writingThe image here shows some Anglian writing implements held by Whitby Musuem (http://www.whitbymuseum.org.uk/)

The first two are the ones interesting to this project, copper alloy styli (the other two are a bone pricker for marking pages and a parchment clip.) I had it in my head that a metal stylus would be best with a wax tablet as you could heat the paddle end to help with the erasing if you needed to.   I don’t have the means to cast anything strong enough (pewter is way to soft and not suitable for heating anyway) and my attempt to forge something with a MAPP gas torch and a nail will never be spoken about in polite company.   In the end I turned a boxwood stylus handle (on a mechanical lathe, still not having attempted to build my pole lathe)  and created the paddle end with a piece of cut copper in the wider style evident in the stylii found in Novgorod.  

I found the erasing side of things a bit tricky until I came across some advice by Randy Asplund who suggests you “mush the wax straight down and fill the scratched lines. You do this by placing the tablet on a flat and sturdy surface. Then you hold the stylus at a very low angle to the tablet, and with your pointer finger tip on the top side of the spatulate end you press down as you drag the eraser across the surface. The lines wipe down and leave a smooth surface.”


The Role of the Wax Tablet in Medieval Literacy: A reconsideration in light of a recent find from York.    Michelle P. Brown

The Wooden Writing Tablets from Excavations at 12-18 Swinegate By J.M. McComish York Archaeological Trust Web Based Report 2015/44

Wooden Writing Tablets from 12-18 Swinegate, York (YORYM 1989.28) Woodworking technology report for York Archaeological Trust. by Steven J Allen 15th June 2016

History of Libraries of the Western World Michael Harris
Handbook of Medieval Culture, Volume 1 Albrecht Classen (ed)

Web sources

Waxed Tablets and Stylus on randyasplund.com – http://www.randyasplund.com/pages/article/waxedtabletstylus.html

Waxed tablet listings on Larsdatter.com http://www.larsdatter.com/tablets.htm

UNESCO Memory of the World Programme website http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/memory-of-the-world/homepage/

Tools of the Trade Writing in Early Medieval Ireland https://www.tcd.ie/library/early-irish-mss/tools-of-the-trade-writing-in-early-medieval-ireland/

Newly Discovered Ancient Roman Writing Tablets Provide Snapshots of Roman-Era London


The Codex Manesse Digitized http://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/cpg848?&ui_lang=eng

The 11th-Century Novgorod “Codex” on Waxed Wooden Tablets – http://www.csad.ox.ac.uk/csad/Newsletters/Newsletter10/Newsletter10d.html

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