The School Room Scriptorium: Giving a Workshop on Medieval Scriptoria in a Primary School

Eleanor Baker is a second year DPhil student at St John’s College, Oxford. Her research looks at how codex production processes influenced middle English literature between 1300-1550. She currently works as the Teaching and Careers officer at Oxford’s Faculty of English, and runs the Living Libraries podcast with fellow DPhil student Alex Peplow. You can follow her @EleanorMayBaker.

In early September, I visited John Burns Primary School to give a workshop about medieval scriptoria and manuscripts to their Year Four pupils. John Burns school is a state primary school located in Battersea, London, and educates pupils from a diverse range of backgrounds. I had been invited by the class teacher, Ms Danielle Buckley, who I had studied with whilst doing my master’s degree. Ms Buckley’s class were working on a project about the early medieval period entitled ‘From the Darkness, in to the Light’, in which they had already explored the narrative of Beowulf. Since reading the text, they wanted to know more about how medieval books were made. That’s where I came in.

John Burns quill pensThe preparation for the class started a week beforehand, when I went to Oxford’s Port Meadow to collect some resources for making quill pens. During the late summer period, the banks of the river Thames, which skirts around the meadow, are home to hundreds of Canada geese and a significant population of swans. Although medieval pens were made from the largest primary feathers of geese and swans, these feathers are not shed regularly, and so I satisfied myself with some of the smaller secondary, tertial and covert wing feathers which would, anyway, be appropriate for smaller hands. I made sure the feathers were still at least around seven inches long, and had relatively thick calami (the hollow tube at the bottom of the feather). I also tried to choose those which were not absolutely covered in dubious substances, and which had downy barbs and afterfeathers, as well as clean and neat vanes. The benefits of these qualities will become apparent when I discuss how we made the quill pens.

On the extremely rainy morning of my trip I jumped on the train with an assortment of materials: thirty feathers, some home-made oak-gall ink kindly gifted to me by fellow PhD student Sara Charles, cocktail sticks, tinfoil, Christopher de Hamel’s Making Medieval Manuscripts and Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham’s Introduction to Manuscript Studies (purely for the pictures). When I arrived, Ms Buckley and I set about preparing the room before the pupils arrived back from lunch. To save time and unnecessary debate over who-gets-what-feather, we set up each place with the required materials for the session: a couple of sheets of paper, a cocktail stick, a feather and some diluted pots of ink in the middle of each table. We then went to collect the pupils from the playground, where they had lined up in their year groups. For some added theatricality, Ms Buckley suggested that we wear our graduate caps and gowns, which excited several gasps and much silent staring as they trooped in to the classroom after us. A good start, I thought.

My plan for the session itself, which ran in the classes final period of the day from 1:15-3:20pm, was to make it mostly practical, introducing much of the bare factual material in the first twenty to thirty minutes via a power point filled with lots of pictures. I started off my introducing myself and stating that for the next couple of hours, the class were all going to be scribes in my scriptorium. We started by looking at what a scriptorium was and who would have worked there. This enabled the introduction of a handy silencing technique, in which I would shout ‘scriptorium silence!’ and they would all sit up straight and stop talking, having learned that the only sound that should be heard was the very quiet mumbling of scribes and the scratching of pens. The class stayed well engaged in this section, and responded to quick quizzes in which I would fire questions at them about the material I had just covered. They were also eager to respond to any questions I asked them, such as ‘do you think working in a medieval scriptorium was hard?’, to which they provided nuanced answers about eyestrain and long working hours, as well as frustrating scribal errors.

I then started showing them videos of how manuscripts were made. I took some time deciding which video to show this age group, as I didn’t want it to be too technically detailed, or too gory. I decided on the first three minutes this video from the Getty Museum. I had brought along some offcuts of parchment which I had bought from William Cowley Parchment Makers for teaching purposes, and I then passed them around the class so that they could compare the sheep, cow and goat parchments. Unexpectedly for me they found this fascinating, excitedly pointing out that they could see hairs, asking why some bits had holes in, and what the translucent lines of veins running through the skins were. They liked comparing the skins to one another, noting the colour differences, the grains of the skins and the various thicknesses of the pieces. They seemed to have a real aptitude for spotting this kind of detail, and I think having something that they could touch, hold up to the light and test the strength of made a real difference to their understanding of the material.

We then embarked on what, in hindsight, I think was the least successful part of the session. The cocktail sticks which I had brought with me were to illustrate how pricking a manuscript worked, and for the pupils to experience how a medieval page was set up before writing began. This was more complicated than I envisioned. Although I demonstrated how to use the cocktail stick to make small holes in two lines down each length of the page, the reality of eight-year-old hands performing this task was somewhat more complicated. Many of the pupils were confused about how far apart the holes should be and worried about stabbing themselves, and pages were constantly crumpled from overenthusiastic piercing. Surprisingly, the cocktail sticks were never weaponised, but there was some malicious snapping of them.

After a few minutes of this I moved on to what the students were most excited about: making the quill pens. To provide a quick demonstration, I used this video from the British Library, which shows the brilliant Patricia Lovett making quill pens. We then embarked on a simplified process to make our own. I had experimented a little at home to determine which steps I could cut out, and settled on this method:

  • Cut off the downy afterfeathers from the bottom of the feather. If you plan to attempt this yourself, be warned that these get everywhere, some children walked home with feathers still in their hair. Some children may prove overenthusiastic with their trimming and snip parts of the vane, but as long as they do not completely destroy the integrity of the feather this will still work.
  • Cut off the top of the feather at an angle. Again, there may be an inclination to hack at the feather, so vigilance is required.
  • Snip off the very bottom of the calamus.
  • Now, this is where things get a bit complicated: an angled cut then needs to be made at the bottom of the calamus to make the nib shape.
  • Make the nib point blunt by cutting off the very end
  • Create a vertical slit running up the nib point to draw up the ink

Ms Buckley, the wonderful teaching assistant and I performed most of steps 4,5 and 6 ourselves, as they were difficult to achieve with the thick and blunted red, green and yellow school scissors. It is, however, possible, and some of the more dexterous children managed it alone. Overall, they were able to follow these instructions, albeit with frequent checks in between and calls for quiet. For Ms Buckley and I, this was the most intensive part of the session as it required a lot of one-to-one attention and frequent questions about what and where to cut, but it was worth it to see every child proud of the pen that they had made.

Next, we went back to the board to explore how different ink colours were made. I had a slide with lots of different ingredients for making inks and pigments on, and asked them to guess which product made which colour, or how that ingredient was used. They were stumped by my inclusion of a human body, guessing (rather alarmingly) that human flesh or blood may have been used to make inks, and dissolving in to giggles when I told them that human urine was sometimes used. This brought us to the final part of the session: attempting to write with our quill pens. I did not have enough oak-gall ink to go around, but Ms Buckley had plenty of cups of diluted black print-making ink on hand. At first, I got the pupils to simply practice making letter forms, showing them an uncial script alphabet on the board. Optimistically, I had planned on showing them two different scripts which they could choose from (the other being a later medieval textura script), but it was far easier having this age group all focus on one example. Some students found this easier than others, and I think it was hard for them to adjust to using a quill pen that would sometimes splutter and scratch unpredictably, but they all tried and some of them were very successful.

In the last part of the session we then encouraged the students to write short sentences with their pens, and spend some time decorating initials. I left some examples of medieval initial decorations of all periods on the screen, but let them decorate their initial however they wanted, medieval-themed or otherwise. Alternatively, I could have structured this so that they copy out lines of a particular medieval text, such as Beowulf which they had been studying in class, but since they were already tired, and time was limited, it seemed best to let them have some time to do as they pleased.

Overall, it was a successful session and an absolute pleasure to work with the pupils of John Burns. I think it proved that there is a way to practically engage primary school aged children with medieval manuscript production processes and scriptoria, topics which seem very technical and instructional but prove excellent for hands-on learning. Although there were some elements of the session that I would have changed, the basic structure seemed to have worked, and I was impressed by the pupil’s continual enthusiasm, their probing questions and their desire to get stuck in with anything that was offered up. Most of the pupils took their quill pens home, and according to Ms Buckley, many of them have asked what they need to do to go to university.

I would like to thank Ms Buckley and John Burns Primary School for inviting me to speak, and Teaching the Codex for offering me a space to document these thoughts.

Eleanor Baker, St John’s College, Oxford

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