The Making of Medieval Ink: an Unessay Project

Ink is a keystone element of the modern world, comprising our pens, printer cartridges, and more. Though we might take it for granted because it is so widely available, ink making was (and still is, in many places) an art form within itself. Since our discussions earlier this semester on the impact of inks and illustrations on the meaning of a text (as seen in People of the Book and Colors of the New World), we have both been incredibly interested in the ways ink was created in the middle ages. Armed with curiosity, an assortment of supplies, and 16th century recipes, we set out to create our own ink, an experience that was much more difficult than we originally imagined.

Using the Travelling Scriptorium recipes, we decided to make one batch of Latin ink and one batch of red ink, but our amounts of product were adapted from the recipes found at Scribes Scribbling because the batch sizes were smaller. Latin ink is a black ink used for writing, whereas red ink is used for mainly illustrative purposes (though we have seen a few manuscripts in Special Collections that have text written in red ink.) Surprisingly, there are only slight differences between the two in terms of their recipes and procedures, but both come with very distinct difficulties.

We began our ink-making journey with red ink, which was the simpler of the two recipes. Red ink is made with white vinegar, powdered brazilwood, alum, and gum arabic.
First, we thoroughly mixed 32 ounces of vinegar with three ounces of brazilwood and let it sit overnight.

The next day, we boiled the mixture until it was reduced by half. It smelled extremely sour and the vapor made our eyes water.

Once the mixture was reduced by half, we added four grams of ground gum arabic and four grams of alum to it, pouring both powders in at the same time and stirring thoroughly. Though the amount of vapor increased by a lot, the pot wasn’t at risk of boiling over like the recipe warned.

After letting our mixture simmer over the heat for a while longer, we noticed that it was turning red, which was our cue to turn off the heat and begin the filtering process.

Filtering was deceptively difficult because our mixture had a lot of thick sediment that was too large to be filtered through a cloth. When liquid ink did seep out of the sediment, it was just absorbed into the fibers of the cloth, and therefore did not drip into the bottle. We ended up scooping our entire mixture into the bottle (thick sediment and all) because the red ink was simply inextricable with the filtering equipment we used, which was just a funnel and a dishcloth. If we were to make red ink again, we would definitely need to invest in a fine, mesh filter that would filter the sediment but not absorb our final product. Even though it’s very thick and grainy, our red ink still works well, and the completed product is very vibrant!

Next, we created our Latin ink. Latin ink is made with water, gall nuts, gum arabic, vitriol (which is sulfuric acid) and red wine. First, we mixed ⅛ of a pound of gall nuts with a quart of water, and let it it boil until it was reduced by half. Once reduced by half, we added ¾ of an ounce of ground gum arabic to the mixture and boiled it until it was reduced by half again. We then removed the mixture from the heat and started working on the second part of the recipe.

The second part of the recipe was much simpler. First, we put a cup of red wine in a sauce pan and let it warm up over low heat. When it was warm, we added an ounce of sulfuric acid and stirred until the powder was dissolved.

Next, we added the two mixtures together by slowly pouring our wine/vitriol into the pot with our water and gall nuts while stirring. At this point, the mixture began to turn black, but we had to let it sit in a bowl for two days to complete the process.

There was little to no sediment in this batch, so our filtering method would not do us any favors (all of the ink would just absorb into the dishcloth.) We just poured our ink directly from the bowl into the final container. The ink is extremely thin and watery- it’s more reminiscent of watercolor paint than either of the inks we used in class. It has a strong color and still works well, but it is more difficult to control than the red ink. Both completed products are very difficult to handle because the ink stains. The watery consistency of the Latin ink means that it spills very easily out of its container.

We had a lot of fun creating the ink, and we learned a lot as well. Firstly, we realized how difficult ink making must have been in the middle ages without a means of easily controlling temperature in the way we can with electric stoves. Though the steps seem easy to follow, getting a consistency that works well with writing and illustrating is a difficult and time consuming process, especially considering how most inks need to be left to “set” for two days before use. We had a lot of difficulty with very small batches of ink, so we have a lot of respect now for people who had to make large vats of it. Additionally, using this ink requires a lot of concentration in order to avoid bleeding on the page and spilling on clothing.

This project not only altered our opinions of ink and the labor/artistry that went into creating it, but also altered our perception of the role of ink in premodern manuscripts.  Before this project, we thought that ink was just a means of creating a manuscript, which we typically view as the document or thing that preserves history, as opposed to a way of documenting history within itself.  The recipes used to create ink are ways of recording history- certain ways of making inks can be dated back to a specific period of time, just as our ink recipe can be dated back to the 16th century. The amount of intention and effort it takes to get ink the right color and consistency also means that there is a part of the ink’s creator within it, because it represents what era they lived in, what materials were available to them, and what they thought the ideal ink should look like and feel like.  For these reasons, ink also serves as a portal between its creator and its observer.

Additionally, recognizing how much effort went into one simple component of a manuscript changed the way we viewed even the most basic manuscripts, because similar amounts of thought, artistry, and time were were required for every part of a manuscript, including the making of parchment, the making of illustrations, and the physical writing of the text. These are all sources of connection between the creators of a manuscript and the observers of a manuscript. Even modern ink can serve as a portal in this way, because it is built for the machines and writing utensils we use in this period, which differ from those used in other periods.  Modern ink is also made in much different conditions with much different materials than in previous periods, and will likely continue to evolve as humanity and our technology moves forward. This means that eventually, our contemporary ink will serve as a time capsule for the people of the future, just as the ink used on manuscripts serves as a time capsule for us now.

Overall, this was a great experience and gave us a chance to get inside the minds of people who created medieval manuscripts.


-MJ and Jonah