Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Oak Galls and Theophilus Presbyter ...



Falling leaves, trees shedding their fruits and nuts, change of seasons … brought me to remember the method of early ink … the crushed gall of an oak mixed with rainwater to start with …

Oak trees turning to autumnal gold


Thank goodness the human has always wanted to write about items of interest … even in the very early civilisations … Greek, Egyptian, Roman, the Dark Ages into the Middle Ages …



Jean Mielot (d 1472) writing in
a Scriptorium

Theophilus Presbyter (c 1070 – 1125 AD), is probably the pseudonym of Roger of Helmarshausen, a German Monk … who it is thought compiled detailed descriptions of various medieval craft arts …


… one of his works is divided into three books:


  • ·       Painting techniques, paints, and inks, especially for the illumination of texts and paintings of walls;
  • ·       Production of stained glass and techniques of glass painting;
  • ·       Techniques of gold-smithing and metalwork.


Theophilus and the other Benedictine monks would have worked in a Scriptorium (“a place for writing”), a necessary adjunct to a library.


Oak Apple Gall
It appears to have been Theophilus who recorded the ‘recipe’ for Iron Gall ink, which became the prescribed ink for all governmental records – in England the Exchequer finances, royal income, sheriffs’ accounts, chancery rolls – administrative accounts … all recorded and held as pipe rolls.


Example of a Pipe Roll by
the Ticknor Organisation

Pipe rolls are named after the “pipe” shaped formed by rolled up parchments on which records were normally written.






Oak Apples or Oak Galls are the common name for the large, round, vaguely apple-like gall commonly found on many species of oak.


From De Materia Medica



It may surprise you that the oak apple gall ink was the main medium used in writing in the Western World from the 5th century to the 19th century, and was still being used in the last century:


  • ·       Da Vinci doodled with it …
  • ·       Bach used it for his compositions …
  • ·       the Constitution of the United States was drafted in it …
  • ·       and the Domesday Survey (1086 AD), William the Conqueror’s historical record of his lands, property etc in England after he conquered in 1066 AD.


There are two types of ink … carbon ink, made of charcoal or lamp-black mixed with a gum … this was used in the ancient and eastern worlds … with recipes for the ink occurring until the 12th century.




Jean Mielot - held in Brussels Royal
Library (by unknown miniaturist)
The second is this metal-gall ink, usually iron gall, made by mixing a solution of tannic acids with ferrous sulphate (copperas); it too requires added gum as a thickener, rather than an adhesive.  After the 12th century … this was the ink used by the craftsmen in later medieval manuscripts.




Gall inks were to be found in the third century, but there was no literary tradition of explaining them until the early 12th century, confirmed by Theophilus.  


Quill with some ancient letters
The scribe needed to work quickly … it was a two-handed operation … the left hand held a knife for sharpening the quill and for erasing mistakes … before the ink had really soaked in to the vellum.


Here it is shown that gall-ink
is destroying paper


Gall-ink could not be used with paper as it is too acidic eating through the paper, but in the days of calfskin vellum, the tannic acid ink bit into the page making the lettering indelible.





A facsimile of De Materia Medica with vellum cover
It is thought that Theophilus put a ‘recipe’ down for iron-gall ink into his book on crafts … and thus the scribes in the Middle Ages started to use that ink … giving us the many basic dark black/brown ink inscribed words we find in our ancient manuscripts today – throughout the early western world.


Male Gall Wasp
Galls are caused by wasps laying their eggs in developing leaf buds … there are a variety of galls … our oak apple gall, the oak marble gall, oak artichoke gall and the acorn cup gall to name a few of these distinctive forms.


So we have wasps to thank that we have records which can be read today … but also the ingenuity of our forebears … crushing galls with rainwater, and realising that a stronger ink was possible when different earths were used.

Home made oak gall inks


Iron gall ink is tannic acid … which occurs naturally in plants, fruits and other life.  It has been extracted and utilised by civilisations for thousands of years.





Look out for the oak galls as you walk the woods this autumn … and think where these blogs originated from millennia ago … a funny old world!


Three quills in different stages
of preparation
Should you be able to find some fresh felled oak ... it often displays blue-black stains caused by a reaction between the iron from the axe, and the tannin of the wood to produce a substance identical to old-fashioned writing ink; check too for brass screws to secure newly seasoned timber, because the acid in the oak will badly corrode steel screws.  (I couldn't!)


Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

44 comments:

Elephant's Child said...

I always find it fascinating how much we owe to people who are long gone. But because of their determination and industry aren't (if that makes sense).
Thanks Hilary. Yet another informative and intriguing post. I do appreciate the research you do.

Marja said...

Very interesting I am wondering how that oak apple gall seems so big seen that it originated from wasp eggs? I can't remeber having seen one before.
Amazing to know that it was used a lot in the past. We wrote with ink when I was small It was called East Indien Ink and is probably carbon based. Not sure. Thanks for all the amazing information

Out on the prairie said...

Amazing how this was found to be a possible source to make ink. One particular oak seems to be full of galls, a member of the red oak. They have a higher tannin content than the white oaks.I would have been a terrible scribe, writing with my left hand and smearing a lot. I ink a few sketches very carefully.

Patsy said...

I can't remember the last time I saw an oak gall. There were lots when I was a kid and I often picked one up – but I have moved since then to an area with less trees.

I didn't know they were used to make ink, otherwise I'd probably have tried doing that. I liked to experiment (usually testing toxicity levels on my little brother).

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ EC - it is amazing isn't it - and then eventually someone records it for us (or them to start with) ...and it always makes me incredulous how far people travelled taking their knowledge with them ... exactly their determination and 'industry' (hard work). So glad to know you enjoyed it ... I enjoy writing my posts ...

@ Marja - I expect the wasp egg/larva pushed the gall out altering its structure - that's my guess. Check your oak trees in New Zealand .. I'm sure you'll find one at some stage.

Indian Ink .. hasn't changed that much ... it now can be in bottled form - ink bottle, or as an inkstick - which needs to be ground and mixed with water before use. If a binder is used then it becomes water-proof or needn't be. That was interesting to find out about it - I might do a separate post on it!

@ Steve - the ancient world always amazes me at what they achieved ... using common sense, nature and the 'earths and metals'. The oaks do vary and your American ones will be different varieties to ours ... an early source of oak gall ink in Europe was from Spain where the ferrous earth produced the right gall structure ...

I can't sketch at all ... I guess you need to learn the Leonardo method ... mirror writing?!

@ Patsy - gosh I'd never attribute one of your characteristics to be a hidden poisoner! Your poor brother ... mine had manure cakes to eat - that's as far as I got, no doubt with worms as a side-order!

We had one large oak tree at home - but I only remember acorns ... no galls. The cesspit was near it! That should have produced excellent galls you'd have thought ...

Cheers to you - you've given me food for thought and memories of days gone by ... cheers Hilary

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The gall of those wasps!
That makes one appreciate the ease of writing today. Can you imagine if we had to carve out our mistakes?

H.R. Sinclair, Southpaw said...

How totally cool. I love those Scriptoriums although it looks like very tiring work.

Nice pun there Alex.

Joanne said...

as a writer (scribbler), I appreciate your research on this subject. Quite fascinating. And instead of my "office", I'm going to call it a "Scriptorium". Wish it was an adjunct to a library. Thanks for a wise Wednesday post

Crystal Collier said...

Super fascinating. I feel smarter for having read this post. =) It totally filled my fetish for paper and ink. I do wish we'd retained some of the earlier printing practices because paper dies way too quickly, but I suppose that would boost the expense and difficulty of manufacturing. Thank goodness for digital print! May it be around forever.

Jacqui Murray said...

Fascinating. The human brain is amazing, how we keep changing everything. Why don't alligators come up with better ways to get their food, or mokeys leave hidden notes on tree trunks. No one but us humans.

Chrys Fey said...

I love oak tress, but I had no idea parts of them were used in early ink. Fascinating!

Rhodesia said...

You do manage to find the most interesting subjects to write about. Once again I have learnt a lot from your post as I knew nothing of this. Great research well done Hilary. Hope all is well Diane

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Alex – well done for your pun! I know when I was looking at this I thought – we really are so lucky aren’t we …

@ Holly – that’s great … it does sound like awful work doesn’t it … Scriptoriums would be wonderful – especially if there were a few scribers working for me!

@ Joanne – wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all have Scriptoriums … with people writing up our blogs for us. So glad you enjoyed the post …

@ Crystal – thanks so much … it’s wonderful the post is being enjoyed by you and the others … there are practitioners of writing on vellum – I saw them in Durham when I went to see the Lindisfarne Gospels. Sadly paper does fade rather easily doesn’t it … it is still used – but does cost … oh yes – thank goodness for this digital world.

@ Jacqui – yes the human brain is pretty clever … but I hope we’re not too clever for our own good. As long as alligators stay in their rivers and don’t manage to ‘learn to walk on land’ … Monkeys didn’t steal our postal boxes in trees … it’d be interesting if Dr Doolittle was real …

@ Chrys – an aged oak tree is a stupendous tree, which nurtures so many other creatures and life above and below ground … and now ink …

@ Diane – thanks so much … I keep my mind wandering along interesting paths …

Just so glad you all are enjoying the information … cheers Hilary

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

I wrote in my journal today, the first time since September 16th. My penmanship is horrible. I know our era is fast beyond anything Theophilus could have imagined, but it's it glorious working with computers and visiting people all over the world instantly whenever we choose? I love it. I love that I can stop by and see what you're up to. I love that I can learn from you despite you being so far away. We live in fabulous times.

Anabel Marsh said...

Had no idea about any of this! Fascinating.

Jo said...

How fascinating Hilary, I had never even heard of galls. (Gall bladder maybe). I certainly didn't know about ink production. Something I have never really thought about. One knew about quill pens but never wondered where the ink came from. Very enlightening.

Liz A. said...

I never much thought about how old ink was made. Such great info.

Truedessa said...

Well, I think we've come a long way. I've always wanted to write with a quill, just to see how it would feel. Thanks for another informative posts. You are always teaching me something new!

Ana coelho said...

So interesting I always learn something from reading your postings. Thank you Hilary! Take care Ana..

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Joylene - oh so is mine ... tried to change my handwriting when I was 13 or so ... big mistake - now it's dreadful. I do use pencil though. Though your thought on how 'easy' it is for us to communicate, share ideas, catch up with family etc ... and call in to blogs to learn things ... such a wonderful world or as you say we do live in fabulous times ... thanks!

@ Anabel - that's great ... thanks ...

@ Jo - I'd come across it in passing and noted it when I checked out various things ... but not in this way. Quill pens I knew weren't easy ...

@ Liz - it was really interesting checking this out ...

@ Truedessa - we have certainly come a long way ... and I'm glad I don't need to write with a quill pen, or even a fountain pen!

@ Ana - glad you enjoyed it ... and learnt something new.

Cheers to you all - good to see you and your comments .. thanks - Hilary

Lynn said...

That is so fascinating - and I had a flash of and image of the trial and error of writing with ink that these pioneers went through so long ago. Thank you for writing about this - something I did not know about.

(Being of the Presbyterian church denomination, at first I thought you were writing about that. We have a position in our church leadership of Executive "Presbyter".)

A Cuban In London said...

Great post. Informative and interesting as usual. We owe so much to past civilisations, don't we?

Greetings from London.

Elsie Amata said...

And this is why I love visiting your blog, Hilary. I'm always learning something new and fascinating from you. And this time I was able to stump my husband which is even better *wink* He didn't know about the gall ink so I got to school him with my new knowledge. We'll be keeping our eyes to the trees this fall.

Paula Kaye said...

I did not know any of this. That is what I love about your blog. You ALWAYS educate me about something!!

Karen Lange said...

The ingenuity of those who've gone before us was amazing, wasn't it? Next time I take a walk outdoors, I will remember this. Interesting stuff, thank you, Hilary. Have a great weekend! :)

Robert Bennett said...

Wow. This is absolutely amazing. I had no idea that we ever used oaks apples (or how they formed). I always love your tidbits. They're awesome. :)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Lynn – oh the thought of being a scribe and spending hours upon hours writing must have been terrible … really hard work on the hands and eyes.

You know I hadn’t even looked up Presbyterianism to see if there was a link to his name – but on a quick check I can’t see it. As Theophilus was from Germany and the Presbyterian Church came out of the Reformation era in Scotland and England … I’m not sure if there is any link – but I’m glad you made me look it up!

@ ACIL – we sure do owe a great deal to our earlier ancestors from all centuries and millennia … they start us off along interesting paths.

@ Elsie – oh well done … sometimes it’s good to come up with something your hubby didn’t know about … I’m glad you both enjoyed the post …

@ Paula – many thanks … I know I just remember or find out something and think it’s interesting ... just glad you all do too …

@ Karen – it is fascinating how they worked things out back in “the day” … always experimenting, sampling and trying things …

@ Robert – thanks so much … it’s great you and other commenters look forward to coming by and reading whatever happens to have enticed me to write about!

Cheers to you all – enjoy your walks and let’s hope some of us find oak apple galls at our feet … not raining on our heads! Take care - Hilary

DMS said...

I think my comment got eaten- so I am trying again. :)

Wow! I learned so much here today. I had no idea about the history of ink and all that it entails. I am so impressed with all that people tried and explored over the years. Just amazing! Thanks for sharing. :)
~Jess

Gattina said...

So many different inks ! I only know the black and blue one, when I learned writing we still had pens filled with ink. Today it's mostly used for artistic purposes.

Mike@Bit About Britain said...

Fascinating and meticulously researched as usual, Hilary. For all my love of history, I know absolutely nothing about how things were made! Brilliant! I wonder how they discovered the various options.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Very interesting! I've seen galls on trees before, but never knew what they were, and certainly didn't know they had anything to do with wasps or the way ink used to be made. Thank goodness for modern-day ink! I'm slow enough at writing as it is; I'd be awful if I had to use a quill and scrape away mistakes before they were set. First drafts would be a horror!

Cheers!

Rhonda Albom said...

Thanks for the education on the origins of writing ink. Technology always advanced even in the past centuries. Such an involved process!

TexWisGirl said...

very interesting...from how they are made to how they are used.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Jess - oh sorry about that .. just checked it's not in the admin area. Thanks for posting again ... You're right about how much testing, trials and no doubt tribulations occurred but they persevered for us today ...

@ Gattina - yes, I didn't go into the coloured inks used in illuminated manuscripts ... I was in your era - ink and fountain pens ...

@ Mike - thanks so much ... I don't know much about history - but I learn from you and other bloggers, and as I write these up and then push myself to post these sorts of articles. I expect they didn't know things were different ... just different earths and water made those slight differences ... the samplers, simplers and recorders of yore were amazing ...

@ Susan - we do see things all around us - yet many are used in some way or the other - thankfully our ancestors were resourceful. I'm not good at writing either and certainly can't use a fountain pen .. splodges ... like you suggest ... my vellum too would be full of holes or black scrapes ...

@ Rhonda - technology has always advanced ... but they had the start for us ... and wasn't it involved ...

@ Theresa - it was interesting to find out about ...

Cheers to you all - thanks for visiting - Hilary

Keith's Ramblings said...

Once again you've taught me a lot I didn't know. I shall never look an oak tree in the same way again. My little bottle of modern day Quink is suddenly less interesting!

beste barki said...

I had no idea that ink could come from oak galls. I didn't know about galls to begin with. I learned so much!

Shammickite said...

They just don't call little boys Theophilus any more, do they?
I'm so glad you wrote about this. I had no idea where ink came from in the old days, and the story of the oak gall is fascinating. A story that we never think to enquire about. And now I can use acrylic inks in all colours of the rainbow for my art. No need for oak galls any more.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Keith - I'm always amazed at how things came about ... and yes Quink ink won't ever be quite the same will it ... but I love their clear colours.

@ Beste - I'm glad I'll have you looking around for oak galls in the future ... they're fun to find ... but I've never made ink.

@ Shammickite - well I'm not sure ... I did come across another Theophilus recently - but having just checked ... 'Theophilus' is a Greek root ... so I guess it depends on the parents' choice of root name.

In art there are lots of choices aren't there ... but it's fascinating to find out how far we've come in developing other forms of writing instruments ... enjoy your rainbow colours ...

Cheers to the three of you - and here's to happy writing today! Hilary

Jeffrey Scott said...

How awesome to know where us writers originated.
One day, I would love to make my own home-made ink.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Jeffrey - many thanks ... it was an interesting post to write up - and there are 'recipes' out there for making your own gall ink ... and other inks. Good to see you - cheers Hilary

Juliet Batten said...

I had no idea that ink came from the oak galls - I didn't even know what a gall was until you helpfully explained further down your post. How interesting that the ink was so long lasting. As I writer, I'm so glad I don't have to make ink or twiddle with a quill before I can get my creative ideas down on the page. I will never take my ball point pen for granted again!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Juliet - I did know .. but writing up the post brought it back to life a little. I'm not sure I'd realised quite how long the gall ink had been used .. but as you say I'm glad I can let my fingers do the talking and not cover myself with ink (even if it was a fountain pen). Exactly - we are so lucky .. cheers Hilary

Deniz Bevan said...

I love reading about old ink and paper! Wonder if I could try making my own ink from oak galls... But then I'd need a quill!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Deniz - Definitely you could .. and make your own quills ... I'm sure there'd be somewhere in Geneva ... and you'd need some vellum - always possible ... I hope you give it a try sometime - cheers Hilary