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Inky Fingers, part 1

Category: Chancery Docs, Historic Recipes, Medieval Manuscripts

29 May being Oak Apple Day – the anniversary of the Restoration of King Charles II, honouring the ‘Royal Oak’ at Boscobel House which shielded him from Cromwell’s men after the Battle of Worcester – it feels appropriate to spare a thought for the humble oak apple, which plays such a large part in my daily life as a staple ingredient of the Ink on the Mediæval manuscripts I read – so large a part that it can make or break my day, depending on whether a recipe has been well or badly mixed.

The apple on its own is not to blame, and in fact is not a fruit, rather a walnut-sized or smaller smooth round gall, produced by the sting-like secretions of wasp larva developing from an egg laid singly on an oak leaf (usually budding on smaller rather than thicker branches), providing it with nourishment until it hatches. Galls can be picked from Midsummer onward, and it’s well worth remembering to check for a hole in each one first, to make sure the occupying wasp has left its cone:

Iron Gall Ink recipes may vary, but they have a common theme – combining the tannic acid of the oak Gall with the Iron of ferrous sulphate (known at different times by different names), Water (sometimes Wine or Vinegar), and Gum Arabic as a thickener, smoothing ink-flow through the Quill. The dark-brownish- or dark-purplish- Black Ink produced by this alchemical transformation of natural materials is extremely long-lasting, but can be acidic if not combined in the right proportions, biting and eating into the Parchment beneath, while too much Gum can cause the pigment to peel, or crack and flake away, leading to indecipherable loss of text as the centuries roll by, and major headaches for readers.

Most of my research is carried out in the Map and Large Document Reading Room on the second floor of The National Archives at Kew, an exceptional place to work, with a breathtakingly extensive manuscript collection – it’s a free-access archive and open to all, offering family-friendly events and free exhibitions in the Keeper’s Gallery, so well worth visiting as a day out in London in its own right.

It was there ten days ago that I was finally able to transcribe the fifteenth century “Recipe for making ink” filed amongst Chancery Miscellanea, which had eluded me earlier this year while its bundle was undergoing vital conservation by the Collection Care Department. I was not expecting the physical document to be so small, a fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand-sized personal aide-mémoire measuring 2 inches by 3¾ inches, something which really doesn’t convey in a photograph:

The National Archives of the U.K., C 47/34/1/3, c. 1483

To make hynke Take gall
& coporos & or vitrial q[uod] id[em] e[st]
& gum[m]e of eu[er]yche a q[ua]rtry[n]
oþ[er] helf q[ua]rtryn & a halfe
q[ua]rtryn of gall more &
breke þe gall a ij oþ[er] a iij
& put ham to gedere eu[er]y[-]
che on[e] in a pot & stere hyt
ofte & Wyʒt Wyth inne
ij Wykys aft[er] ʒe molk
Wryte þ[er] Wyþ
& yf ʒe have a q[ua]rtryn of
eu[er]yche Take a quarte of
Watyr yf halfe a q[ua]rtryn
of eu[er]yche þan take half
a quarte of Watyr

The anonymous writer – still using Anglo-Saxon letters at the dawn of the Early-Modern era, with thorn ‘þ’ standing in for ‘th’ and yogh ‘ʒ‘ for the ‘y’ sound in ‘ye’ – recommends mixing together a quarter part each of an unspecified measure of copperas, a.k.a. vitriol (ferrous sulphate), gum (arabic), and galls broken into 2 or 3 pieces for a quart (as in quarter gallon) of water, adjusting amounts in the same proportion depending on how much one has to hand, stirring often in a pot, and within 2 weeks the ink will be ready to write with. One can’t know whether the recipe was badly mixed or is faulty in itself, but the decay at its top right corner suggests a problem with the gum:

Then again, the recipe can’t be tested until the measure to be quartered is unlocked…

Want to read more? Click here for Inky Fingers, part 2.

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