Making a Medieval Book: Workshops and Classes for the Curious Artisan

By Jenny Weston

As manuscript researchers, we often study how medieval books were produced. We love to look at the quality of the parchment, how the book was originally bound, the character of the script, and the beautiful decorations. It is difficult not to marvel at the skill and talent of some medieval book-makers.

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Hours of Catherine of Cleves (Photo Courtesy of Medievalists.net)

For some manuscript lovers, it is not enough to simply ‘imagine’ how these books were created. They want to experience the process first-hand—preparing the parchment, sewing the quires, blending the ink, and putting the quill to the page.

Modern illumination, Tsukiko Keogh (photo courtesy of http://csnf.com)

Modern illumination, Tsukiko Keogh (photo courtesy of http://csnf.com)

For those who would like to step into the realm of medieval book-making, there is a wide variety of upcoming classes and workshops that offer lessons in some of the most popular methods of traditional parchment-making, calligraphy, decoration, and binding. So if you would like to try your hand at some of these techniques, or if you would simply like to gain a better appreciation for the complexities of medieval book-making, check out some of these events!

Parchment-Making: 

Parchment is one of the most important components of the medieval book. The quality of parchment can range from soft and silky smooth, to rough and full of holes. The craft of turning animal skin into a functional writing surface definitely takes some time and talent.

Monkey's making parchment!

Monkey’s making parchment!

Parchment and Vellum Making Course (Sept. 13 and 14, 2013)

If you think you are up for the challenge, consider signing up for this two-day parchment and vellum making course presented by Pergamena and the Richard E. Meyer & Sons Bookbinding Leather Tannery in Montgomery, NY. The course is apparently quite ‘hands on’, so hopefully you don’t have a weak stomach. (Vegetarians beware)!

Click here for a review and some photos of the course from a previous year.

Calligraphy & Illumination Courses:

Ever imagine what it was like to be a medieval scribe? Copying a text by hand was often the most time-consuming step when making a book in the middle ages. Each letter-form had to be written exactly the same to create the beautiful and uniform lines of text we see today.

Carolingian script sample (Arundel 155)

Carolingian script sample (Arundel 155)

For those interested in testing their own hand, check out some of these classes in script and illumination techniques:

Gothic Script in a Castle 

This beginners class offers an introduction to Gothic Script and it takes place in a medieval castle in Amailloux, France. The class is geared more towards guests and tourists (as opposed to die-hard medieval scholars), but the setting would be incredible!

Square-point Calligraphy Class (November, 2013)

If you find yourself in Italy in November, you might consider signing up for one of these calligraphy classes offered in Venezia. The course in November experiments with square-point instruments for writing.

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Medieval Script & Illumination by the College of Scribes 

This link takes you to a wide selection of classes dedicated to medieval illumination techniques offered by a community of medieval enthusiasts known as the ‘Trimaris College of Scribes’. I have yet to figure out where the actual classes take place (other than the ‘Kingdom of Trimaris’), though if you are keen to try it out, I’m sure they welcome e-mail correspondence from interested candidates!

The Art of Illumination (19 & 20 August, 2013)

Canadians can also have a chance to test out their skills at medieval illumination with this 2-day summer workshop in Ontario.

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Medieval Script & Illumination for Kids (August, 2013)

And for those who have a little medieval scribe in their midst, here is a family-friendly workshop taking place this summer in Cirencester, England.

Medieval Bindings: 

When searching for upcoming book-making courses, I was surprised at just how many workshops and classes are scheduled for those interested in the art of medieval bookbinding. This is perhaps understandable given that the binding can be designed to support all kinds of different textual material (journals, notebooks, stories, textbooks, novels etc.) and knowledge of this trade might therefore be the most ‘applicable’ in the modern era. Whatever the reason for their popularity, here are a few of the options available!

Coptic Binding Workshop (June 9, 2014)

For those who would like to really step back in time, consider this course presented by the Hull History Centre that covers ‘coptic binding’ techniques. See how they put a book together in the 4th century!

Modern & Medieval Bookbinding 

On this page you will find a number of different bookbinding courses currently on offer. While some of them are suited to more ‘modern tastes’, there are classes dedicated to vellum and leather binding methods as well.

Medieval Girdle Book Workshop

This 3-day workshop is set to take place in Illinois, and it offers instruction in medieval girdle books, which (I think) is pretty neat!

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Bookbinding with Raw Materials (2014 dates TBA)

This 2-week bookbinding course in Idaho is also hands on. It teaches participants how to bind books using raw materials that they must harvest and cure. The dates for 2014 have yet to be announced, but courses will be available!

These are just a few of the many classes and workshops that are designed to help curious artists step back in time and experience the world of medieval book production. I think it is rather impressive that these courses are being offered all over the world, which seems to suggest that the traditions of medieval-book making are still alive and well in the modern era!

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