Researching Medieval Manuscripts

by Ruth A. Casie

Whether it’s how to disassemble and clean a Glock, which poisons are quick killing and leave no trace or what women wore in the 14th century it all takes research. The better you know your facts, the more authentic your story. As a result you become somewhat of an authority on the topic. The added benefit is you are now the go to person when you play trivia and can play a mean game of scrabble.

manuscript 3Writing historical fantasy, even though it’s made up, still requires a level of authenticity. Several of my stories are based on people who are responsible for research. Whether it’s my heroine, Rebeka, the renowned history professor in my Druid Knight stories or Cari, the exceptional art appraiser in my upcoming series, River of Time, my stories require research.

In Knight of Rapture, Rebeka required an understanding of old manuscripts. While I researched several sites I came across an online class offered by Stanford University. I had a smattering of knowledge about manuscripts but this survey course explained how manuscripts were made, transcribed, and in some cases the secrets you can unearth about the scribe and even the patron.

It’s been several years…hmmm… decades since I was in school but the lure of finding out the details was too much to pass up. I took the plunge.

What is a manuscript? How is it made? Manuscript means ‘handwritten’ from manus and ‘to write’ from scriba. Another word is chirography. Basically, anything that is handwritten using any implement from a quill to a modern biro (pen) is a manuscript.

There are hundreds of thousands medieval manuscripts survive today from circa 500 to 1500 CE and can be found in repositories throughout the world.

PapyrusThe early papyrus manuscripts were made from the pulp of reeds found along the Nile River in Egypt through southern Sudan. Papyrus was fragile, easily frayed and could only be written on one side. A scroll, it was rolled and stored. This medium or substrate (the surface scribes used to make their books and scrolls) was used before animal skins were processed and stretched to create parchment and vellum. Papyrus was continued to be used alongside parchment and vellum until about 800 CE when its use declined.

When writing was put into the codex, book format, we know today, the limitations of papyrus were more apparent. Parchment and vellum was a more durable, you can write on both sides of the page and it was easier to add more folios to the work.

quires stacked into manuscriptVellum is made from cow skins while parchment comes from sheep. Goat and deer skins are also used. To prepare the animal skins they are dipped in lime for a number of days to clean it of any animal material. It’s then rinsed thoroughly and pinned to a frame to dry. Once the skin is dry it is sanded until it is smooth. Finally, it’s cut into a page or bifolium. These are folded into gatherings or quires. Several quires are stacked together to form the traditional medieval manuscript.

Once the substrates have been manufactured (please be impressed that I used the word in a sentence), they need to be prepared for inscription. Margins are measured and noted using a variety of tools from pinpricks to red pencil lines. We are not only learning about how the manuscripts were produced we’re also learning how to transcribe manuscripts. This is what attracted me to the class. Each section, there were six, ended with a transcription exercise.

Understanding how the manuscript is produced gave me some good technical pieces for my story. I can think of other aspects of chirography that I can use in the stories. Perhaps a study of scribing techniques will help my heroines?


Ruth CasieRuth A. Casie writes contemporary and historical fantasy romance for Carina Press, Harlequin and Timeless Scribes Publishing. Formerly from Brooklyn, New York, she lives in New Jersey with her very supportive husband Paul. When not writing you can find Ruth reading, cooking, doing Sudoku, or counted cross stitch. Ruth and Paul have three grown children and two grandchildren.  They all thrive on spending time together.  It’s certainly a lively dinner table and they wouldn’t change it for the world. She loves to hear from readers, so drop her a line at OR visit her on Facebook: or on Twitter: @RuthACasie. If you’d like to receive her occasional newsletter, please sign up at more information about Ruth’s books, please visit



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