Materials and Tools Used To Create Medieval Russian Manuscripts

Below is my translation of the fourth section from Schepkin’s Textbook of Russian Paleography. This chapter briefly covers some of the materials and tools used to create manuscripts in medieval Russia, including types of ink, quills, clasps, and binding materials. I found most interesting that the Russian word for large metallic plaques used to decorate and protect the covers is derived from the word for “beetle”.

A Textbook of Russian Paleography
Chapter 4: Materials and Writing Tools

A translation of Щепкин, В.Н. «Материалы и орудия письма.» Учебник русской палеографии. Москва, 1918. с. 25-30. / Schepkin, V.N. “Materialy i orudija pis’ma.” Uchebnik russkoj paleografii. Moscow, 1918. pp. 25-30.

[Translation by John Beebe, known in the Society for Creative Anachronism as Master Ivan Matfeevich Rezansky, OL.]

[Translator’s notes: I’ve done my best to convey both the meaning and style from the original. Comments in square brackets and footnotes labeled “jeb” are my own. This document may contain specialized vocabulary related to embroidery, archeology, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Russian history; see this vocabulary list for assistance with some of these terms. This translation was done for my own personal education, and is provided here as a free resource for members of the Society for Creative Anachronism who may be interested in this topic but are unable to read Russian. I receive no compensation or income for this work. If you like this translation, please take a look at other translations I have made available on my blog.]

[The article in the original Russian can be found here:Файл:Щепкин В.Н. Учебник русской палеографии. (1918) — цветной.pdf.]

Medieval Glagolitic and Cyrillic letters are shown in BukyVede font, cf.

A Textbook of Russian Paleography

Chapter 1: Goals and Methods
Chapter 2: Old Slavonic Language and the Slavonic Alphabets
Chapter 3: Dialects
Chapter 4: Materials and Writing Tools (this post)
Chapter 5: Ligatures (Vyaz’)
Chapter 6: Ornamentation
Chapter 7: Miniatures
Chapter 8: Watermarks
Chapter 9: Cyrillic Hands
Chapter 10: Russian Hands in Parchment Manuscripts
Chapter 11: South-Slavic Writing
Chapter 12: South-Slavic Influence on Russia
Chapter 13: Russian Poluustav Script
Chapter 14: Skoropis’
Chapter 15: Steganography (Tajnopis’)
Chapter 16: Numbers and Dates
Chapter 17: Verification of Dates
Chapter 18: Descriptions of Manuscripts
Appendix: Slavonic and Russian Chronology

Chapter 4: Materials and Writing Tools

Familiarity with the materials and tools used in writing is essential because they also underwent changes and, as such, contain data relative to the time and place where a given work was written. Among Orthodox Slavs, manuscripts were written in earlier times on parchment (Rus. пергамент, pergament), and in later times on paper. Parchment was made from the skin of animals and always remained a valuable material. As a result, in the times when books were written on parchment (incidentally, among both the Byzantines and the Slavs), we encounter manuscripts which were written over earlier text which has been washed or scraped away. Such manuscripts are called palimpsets; this word comes from the Greek pálin “again” and psáo “I scrape”). The transition from parchment to paper did not occur suddenly, but this transition serves as a defining date for both South Slavic and Russian manuscripts. And here, we are dealing with a general phenomenon: this shift divides paleographic data quite sharply. The initial states of this new development have not survived or have survived only fragmentarily, and the material which has survived represents what was predominantly in use for a given time. The majority of surviving Serbian and Bulgarian manuscripts turn out to have been written on paper, starting from the mid 16th century, and the majority of Russian manuscripts starting from the 15th century. Earlier than these dates, parchment was king. These are general statistical findings, however, which of course do not preclude numerous exceptions. The main exceptions are that, 1) charters exist (but not predominantly!) on paper as early as the first half of the 14th century in Russia, and among the South Slavs as early as the first half of the 13th century; 2) even in times when paper was predominant, more important charters continued to be written on parchment; 3) in Serbia, luxuriously decorated manuscripts continued to frequently be written on parchment into the 15th century, and in Romania sometimes even into the 16th century.

Paper was an ancient Eastern invention, which reached Western Europe through Spanish and South Italian Arabs by the time of the Crusades. More detailed information on the techniques and history of papermaking can be found later, in the chapter on watermarks.

jeb: Page from the Codex Zographensis, late 10th, early 11th century, written in Glagolitic. The chapter title says: 
(ева(н)ꙅелие отъ лѹкъи / The Gospel of Luke).
Photo in public domain.
jeb: Page from the Codex Zographensis, late 10th-early 11th century, written in Glagolitic. The title, in red, reads:
(ева(н)ꙅелие отъ лѹки / eva(n)dzelie otŭ louki / The Gospel of Luke).
Photo in public domain.

Detailed analysis of the inks used in Slavic-Russian paleography has not yet been performed. But starting in the mid-15th century and later, we have in manuscripts recipes for ink, primarily ferriferous inks made from oak galls (Rus. чернильные орешки, chernil’nye oreshki). The ink in medieval south-Slavic and Russian manuscripts now looks brown. In western paleography, observations have been made that the shade (and subsequently the composition) of inks can differ markedly by time and country.

Of the various paints used for writing (not for minatures or ornament!), the most important was red, which has long been used for banner headings (Rus. заголовка, zagolovka) and various designations. This practice of using red ink is the origin of the words “rubric” in the sense of the initial line of a chapter (cf. Latin ruber, “red”), and a “red mark” in the sense of the first letter of a passage, now indicated by an indentation (Rus. абзац, abzats, “paragraph” or “indentation”) at the beginning. In western writing, red lead (Rus. сурик, surik) was predominant (in Latin, minium, from whence with a changed meaning we get the word “miniature”). Minium is lead-based, and cinnabar (Rus. киноварь, kinovar’) was mercury based, and as such these paints can be distinguished by chemical analysis. In Byzantium, purple ink (sacrum incaustum) was used exclusively by the emperors for their signatures (based on an edict from 470). But, due to the high cost and rarity of true purple, they early on began to resort to surrogates. For this reason, cinnabar also became an exclusively imperial ink, and as a result in Byzantine manuscripts they began to use other paints, most commonly plant-based crimson inks (so called “dragon’s blood”). It appears that in the earliest Slavic manuscripts, cinnabar was also not used; as an example, the 11th century Old Slavonic Sava’s Book has headings written in minium. In the earliest Slavonic manuscripts we also sometimes encounter “dragon’s blood,” for example in the Codex Marianus. They also used red paint of a mixed composition. But, starting in the 13th century, the use of cinnabar started to spread in Russia, which can be determined from its yellow-red “fiery” color. The pinkish-orange, slightly paler and redder minium, without completely replacing cinnabar, became widely used starting in the second half of the 17th century as a more easily obtained paint, created through simple burning of white lead. Red lead was predominant in folk Russian manuscripts from the 18th and 19th centuries, and as such in Russia can be used to establish a manuscript’s date.

Gold (frequently) and silver (less often) were used in writing as decoration, which in Russia and Romania came into special fashion in the time of New Byzantine and Western influences (15th-16th centuries). Gold and silver could be used either as a liquid (in the form of paint) or as foil. The latter was applied to letters written using an adhesive. In Russia, gold paint was little used until the late 16th century.

The process and tools for writing are depicted in works of writing themselves, especially in the Gospels, which sometime contain four miniatures of the Evangelists engaged in writing. They are shown as seated figures who write while holding a sheet of parchment on their knee, that is, as the writing process was performed in the ancient world and as is still sometimes done in the modern East (see Illustration 2). Tables in the miniatures serve only to hold writing instruments: on them, we find images of various kinds of inkwells, vessels for paints, pieces of dry pigments, compasses, straight and curved knives, pencases, sponges, boxes of sand with quills (Rus. перо, pero, “feather” or “feather pen”) stuck into them, chains with points on the ends,[1]These chains appear to have been used for marking line boundaries. and paintbrushes. On tall writing desks, we might see a sheet of parchment, or an unrolled scroll may hang down. In a basket stand rolled and tied scrolls, from which a knife or a quill may sometimes be sticking up. An abundance of these accoutrements is usually found only in Byzantine and the earliest Russian miniatures; later examples typically depict only an inkwell and a quill. In Greek miniatures, instead of feather pens, we see reed pens (Gr. χάλαμος, kálamos). A reed pen also appears to be depicted in one of the miniatures from the Ostromir Gospel. In the remaining Russian miniatures, it seems we always see feather pens depicted. There is no doubt that in Russia, reed pens were not widely used.

Illustration 2: Menologion of Basil II, November 28: Sts. Cosmas and John of Damascus.
Illustration 2: Menologion of Basil II, November 28: Sts. Cosmas and John of Damascus.

Writing quills were made from goose feathers, or sometimes (as a luxury) from swan feathers; in one instance, a peacock feather pen is mentioned (the Pskov Apostolary, 1307). The word “pencil” (Rus. карандаш, karandash) is encountered starting in the time of Peter I, but pencil marks are found in unfinished miniatures from Russian manuscripts dating to the 16th century. Paintbrushes were used in Slavic-Russian writing only when inking letters in gold or silver, or sometimes when writing tall ligatures (Rus. вязь, vjaz’) in cinnabar. Special knives existed for cutting quills, as well as for erasing written marks. Writing accidents were also removed using pumice or a sponge, or were sometimes covered with a layer of white paint, which could then be written over anew. Drawing lines was performed using rulers, or also using compasses and drawing chains to determine the size of letters and the spacing of lines. Awls (Rus. шильце, shil’tse), or blunted points made of metal or bone, were used to press lines into the page. In the 16th and 17th centuries, that is when pencils came into use, we also find mention of a tool called a karamsa (Rus. карамса), a frame with stretched strings, used to line a sheet of paper. The karamsa is still used today in Old Believer calligraphy.

Awls could be used to line either separate, unfolded sheets from the inner side, or entire folded folios at once. In the latter case, the lines appear weaker, the further one gets from the center of the folio.

The ruling system can differ greatly, depending on whether the page was written in one or two columns, whether the manuscript has large capitals placed in special narrow columns, and so forth. In Slavic-Russian paleography, at this time, the ruling method cannot be used to determine specific dates, but they are being studied and described with an eye toward the possibility of extracting such data.

Various paleographic data can be contained in the binding of a manuscript. Sometimes the wood used for the binding boards can point to a specific territory; for example, pine boards point to northern Russia, while in central Russia, boards of oak, birch, and linden were preferred. Patterns embossed into the leather covering these boards may indicate a time or place of creation. On the earliest manuscripts, these stamps are lacking or are very simple. On preserved medieval bindings from the 13th-15th centuries, the leather is either free of embossing, or the embossing was carried out according to Byzantine tradition, inside a large oblique frame containing small round, diamond-shaped, or heart-shaped marks (with images of beasts, birds, or the Byzantine eagle), or as small marks in the form of various crosses, stars, rosettes, and concentric circles, all beautifully and geometrically positioned. In the 16th century, in the embossing of western-Russian bindings we see a western influence; in the Muscovite empire, the Byzantine embossed motifs of the 16th century were more elaborate and complex.

The cover and binding on the Mstislav Gospel (Rus. Мстиславово Евангелие). The manuscript dates to the 12th century. The luxurious cover (Rus. оклад, oklad) was added in the 16th century by order of Ivan the Terrible, and includes several enameled miniatures from the 10th-12th centuries, along with gemstones and pearls. Photo in public domain.
jeb: The cover and binding on the Mstislav Gospel (Rus. Мстиславово Евангелие). The manuscript dates to the 12th century. The luxurious cover (Rus. оклад, oklad) was added in the 16th century by order of Ivan the Terrible, and includes several enameled miniatures from the 10th-12th centuries, along with gemstones and pearls. Photo in public domain.

Over the leather on even the earliest bindings we find, in the corners and in the center, various metallic nails and plaques rising above the surface of the leather, and as such, protecting it from wear or scratches. If the plaque had a patterned design, then it was called a zhuk (Rus. жук, “beetle”) or zhukovina (Rus. жуковина, “beetle”), sometimes spelled zhikovina (Rus. жиковина). From earliest times up through the mid-16th century, we typically find on Russian and south-Slavic manuscripts relatively simple, bronze zhukoviny (in dark, pink, or golden colors). From the 17th century onward in Russia, zhukoviny were typically green brass. But before using these characteristics [to date a manuscript], it is necessary to determine whether later zhukoviny have been attached to an earlier manuscript, or vice versa. Luxurious examples of Gospels, Apostolaries, and other ecclesiastical books also sometimes had their boards decorated with brocade, velvet, or other precious fabrics over the leather, with large cornerpieces (Rus. угольник, ugol’nik, or наугольник, naugol’nik, “square”) and centerpieces (Rus. средник, srednik, from середина, seredina, “center”) of gold, silver, gilt bronze, or brass, decorated with chasing, carving, embossing, and enamelwork. The decorations on these items were motifs common throughout the history of art. Manuscripts’ clasps (Rus. застёжки, zastjozhki), which were made from metal, leather, and various other materials) also changed over time, as did the patterns and inscriptions which were sometimes added in ink, paint or gilding along the edges of the manuscript. The materials used for the bindings and fastenings can also be categorized by date and place of origin. In all medieval [Russian] works of art (miniatures, frescoes, mosaics, sculpture), manuscripts are depicted in the form of a large, rectangular body with markings on their surfaces. The boards do not extend beyond the edges of the folios, as a result of which, the clasps lie flat against the book. This accurately depicts the actual character of these medieval bindings. Starting in the second half of the 17th century, under influence from the West, bindings in Muscovy changed in different ways. The boards started to extend beyond the edges of the pages, protecting them from wear. The spines, which were previously flat or rounded but perfectly smooth, transverse elevated ridges appear, covering the rows of knotted threads along the spine created during the binding of the folios; previously, these knots lines did not stick out as much due to a different sewing method. Over the course of the 16th century, the embossing lost its old Byzantine character. A complex frame appears in the form of concentric rectangular cells. Starting in the second half of the 17th century, the embossed motifs become varied and complex, sometimes gilded, and sometimes covering the entire leather surface of the boards (especially the front). Among the embossing, we find vegetative forms of an ancient or Eastern style, sometimes images of ecclesiastical figures, and often lines of vyaz’ (“ligatures”) containing the words книга глаголемая (Rus. kniga glagolemaya, “Word Book”). All of these methods are still preserved to this day in Old Believer bookbinding, and as such can be encountered in books or manuscripts which have relatively new bindings. In this case, as in others, it is necessary to accurately determine the scope of the paleographic features. There are features which indicate a known expanse of time, while others indicate only the earliest or latest possible date of a given phenomenon (terminus a quo, terminus ad quem).

It is also worth remembering that, to a certain extent, the antiquity of any subject can only be judged based on the level of its preservation, and that the leather and other binding materials gradually wear away and become stained, that the pages of paper and parchment gradually turn yellow or brown, and that the metallic binding decorations in particular wear down, gradually becoming quite smooth to the touch. Distracted by the pursuit of paleographic dating, we often forget these simplest of common sense guidelines.


1 These chains appear to have been used for marking line boundaries.

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