Tag Archives: calligraphy

Lettering as sweet as the dew on the vine, so it is

You can still find the uncial style of writing every March on Saint Patrick’s Day cards and furniture-sale advertisements. Uncial style looks Irish. It was popular with the Irish monks.

Uncials

The old-style square-cap Latin was written in all capital letters, as if the ‘caps lock’ button were on the whole time. It reads like you’re being yelled at (maybe that was the idea).

In Alcuin’s day, monks wrote on parchment. Parchment isn’t cheap and all-caps takes up a lot of space. The monks learned to conserve space by making the first letter of a sentence a big capital letter and writing the rest of the sentence in small letters. The small letters were only an inch high—an ‘uncia’ in Latin—so this style of writing is called ‘uncial’ (OON se al).*

Uncials. Look how round they are compared to the Latin square-caps.

The small letters are called miniscules. The monks formed them with pens, so they became more round in contrast to the chiseled-in-stone letters of the old days. The miniscules grew tails, like ‘d’ or ‘p’ which extended up or down. They look different from capital letters.

The big capital letters are called maguscules MAH-juss-kyoolz). In time the maguscules became large versions of the miniscules.

This is the style Alcuin updated to Carolingian and promoted across the Holy Roman Empire. Latin translations of Arabic texts would be written in the Carolingian style. Alcuin dreamed up an additional feature: punctuation. Thanks to Alcuin you can tell when sentences end and new ones begin because they’re marked with a period. You can tell if the writer is asking a question, because there’s a question mark at the end. I’m personally grateful for the M-dash—which I probably overuse.

*…or maybe the monks shouldn’t be taken too literally. ‘Uncial’ may have been their jokey way of saying the letters are small.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/uncial
https://www.britannica.com/topic/uncial
http://www.designhistory.org/Handwriting_pages/Uncials.html
http://www.designhistory.org/Handwriting_pages/Carolingian.html
https://www.britannica.com/topic/majuscule
I wanted to get a take on uncials from a calligrapher. Here’s that wonderful lady who makes her own ink. She says it’s St Jerome’s fault they’re called uncials. She shows you how to write them:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VU-dHTEkAx0&t=335s
You weirdos who’ve been loyally following this blog will no doubt remember this post:
https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2019/07/04/measuring-distance-in-rome/

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We’re going to need more books

Charlemagne wanted to promote a culture of learning throughout France and then the Holy Roman Empire. He didn’t have tv or the internet to spread this learning around, so Charlemagne would need to use books. Many of those old books from classical times (during the Greek & Roman Empires) were hard or impossible to find.

° Bad news: Charlemagne was made aware that many original manuscripts of ancient writers and philosophers had been lost or destroyed—like when the library at Alexandria got torched. Probably Alcuin and the other teachers told him.
° Good news: Charlemagne was made aware that copies of these ancient manuscripts existed in the Near- and MidEast, translated into Arabic. Probably Alcuin again.
° Plan of action: Charlemagne and Alcuin began an empire-wide program of finding the Arabic copies and translating them into Latin.

As I mentioned a few posts back, written Latin had taken on a different character in every different kingdom—it didn’t look like the square-cap Latin chiselled into a column that Julius Caesar would have recognized. Copying and translating these Arabic manuscripts would be a golden opportunity to standardize writing—get everybody in the empire writing the same way. Here’s the thing: instead of making all the monks go back to square-cap Latin, Alcuin had a different idea. He noticed that a lot of those regional writing quirks made Latin easier to read.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25669.How_the_Irish_Saved_Civilization
https://omniglot.com/writing/latin2.htm
https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-worldhistory/chapter/charlemagnes-reforms/

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Gall and vitriol!

In the world of art supplies, a liquid medium like ink is pigment + binder + solvent. Pigment is color. In iron gall ink, the black pigment is created by the chemical reaction when vitriol (iron sulphate) is added to water that had gall-nuts steeping in it.

The binder holds the ingredients together. You might remember the Egyptians got the sap, or gum, from acacia trees which they dried and ground into powder—Gum Arabic. Gum Arabic is the binder for iron gall ink. The powder is mixed with vinegar before adding it to the inky water.

The acid from gall-nuts (and vinegar, too) eats into the vellum very slightly, so the pigment stays put.

Water is the solvent. You can thin iron gall ink with water. After it dries, though, it’s waterproof. If you goof you have to scrape it off with a knife.

Here are links to iron gall ink recipes:

https://recipes.hypotheses.org/8935
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7k4-wj8mZ8
Isn’t she wonderful? This lady found a medieval recipe for iron gall ink and decided to cook it up herself:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xo9rbRRCBv8
https://www.medievalists.net/2015/09/how-to-make-ink-in-the-middle-ages/

Here’s where you can get the ingredients online. CHECK WITH YOUR PARENTS before you start playing with caustic chemicals that can burn a hole through the kitchen counter, you weirdos!
https://www.etsy.com/listing/786632766/oak-gall-35-oz-brownish-white-gallnut?gpla=1&gao=1&&utm_source=google&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=shopping_us_b-craft_supplies_and_tools-paints_inks_and_dyes-dyes&utm_custom1=_k_Cj0KCQiAj9iBBhCJARIsAE9qRtDhCL1puzg69VQp90T-th542MUw5Rc1l2Z5-FqHllw8I1s_u-575mgaAifyEALw_wcB_k_&utm_content=go_11502762686_119128326464_476190472988_aud-966866687014:pla-297542836984_c__786632766_12768591&utm_custom2=11502762686&gclid=Cj0KCQiAj9iBBhCJARIsAE9qRtDhCL1puzg69VQp90T-th542MUw5Rc1l2Z5-FqHllw8I1s_u-575mgaAifyEALw_wcB
https://www.gumarabicusa.com/buy-now#buy-gum-arabic
https://www.homesciencetools.com/product/iron-ii-ferrous-sulfate-30-g/?gclid=Cj0KCQiAj9iBBhCJARIsAE9qRtA45C0COBF4UGN4E3CaUx5wSoVZbTfHQatWuNOSqgsmAtYzz-jg4xwaAp40EALw_wcB

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_gall_ink

There’s a charm in the old words of these recipes. They were once used to describe chemicals and today they describe attitude or a way of speaking or acting:
vitriol https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vitriol
gall https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gall

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Iron gall ink

Hatched gall wasp leaving its nut

The ink the Egyptians used was great for papyrus. Not as good for parchment. Writing on parchment calls for a different kind of ink. This new ink needs acid that will bite into the surface while staying nice and black. Not a whole lot of acid—just enough so the ink interacts with the surface of the parchment.

Where do you find acid? Somehow, somebody observed that when wasps lay their eggs on the tree bark, the eggs irritate the tree which reacts by growing a round gall-nut around the eggs to isolate them. If I were a tree I’d do the same thing myself. After the eggs hatch the baby wasps leave behind gall—a bitter, caustic chemical. Ink-makers collected those gall-nuts to make a slightly acidic ink. To get the gall out of the gall-nuts, they steeped them in water for a week.

https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/trees/oak/oak-apple-gall-info.htm
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39Fdxx_J3K8
https://earthstar.blog/2018/04/14/andricus-kollari-maybe/180414-andricus-kollari-1/

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The whole megillah in one sentence

A quiz from when I taught Sunday school. I always thought Vashti got a raw deal in this story.

Did somebody say ‘megillah?’ It means ‘the whole ball of wax’ or ‘the whole nine yards.’ Where did that word come from? Purim is the holiday that celebrates when Esther saved the Persian Jews from being massacred. It’s a long story that’s read in its entirety every Purim—and the Hebrew word for scroll is megillah.

And, because I’m the Sweetheart of Blogdom, I’ll give the whole Book of Esther my patented Western-Lit-in-Only-One-Sentence ® treatment. The set-up: Israel had been under the thumb of the Assyrian Empire, then the Babylonian Empire who marched most of the Jews to parts East. Next, the Persians ran the show and the Jews who lived in the Persian empire kept their heads down to avoid trouble. We’re in Susa, the capital city. Ready? Hang onto your tri-corner hats ‘cause here we go:

Five months into a 6-month drinking party King Ahasuerus hollers for Queen Vashti to make an appearance but Vashti says no thanks bub so the wise men tell King Ahasuerus she has to go or else none of the wives will obey their drunk husbands so Queen Vashti gets the pink slip and Ahasuerus holds a beauty contest to choose a new wife meanwhile the Jew Mordecai tells his beautiful cousin Esther the Miss Persia pageant could be her golden ticket so Esther enters and wins now she’s the queen and lives in the palace Mordecai warns Esther be careful some bad guys want to kill the king so Esther tells the cops and they catch the bad guys later the bigshot Haman is walking around Susa everybody bows to him except Mordecai who only bows to G-d so Haman gets mad and tells King Ahasuerus he wants to kill all the Jews because they won’t bow to him Ahasuerus says okay here’s my ring with the royal seal do whatever you want Mordecai gets wind of this plan and begs Esther to get the king to stop it Esther goes to the king even though he didn’t ask to see her which was a serious crime in those days but she figures if I die I die Ahasuerus doesn’t kill her so she invites Ahasuerus and Haman to dinner Haman builds a really tall gallows to hang Mordecai later that night the king reads the newspaper story about how Mordecai stopped the bad guys who tried to kill him he orders Haman to honor Mordecai with a big parade so Haman doesn’t get to hang him which really grinds Haman’s gears that evening at Esther’s dinner King Ahasuerus asks her what would you like darling anything at all even unto half my kingdom Esther says Haman wants to kill all the Jews I’m a Jew so…Ahasuerus has Haman hanged on the same gallows Haman had built for Mordecai the king gives his ring with the royal seal to Mordecai he sends out executive orders allowing the Jews to defend themselves they destroy their enemies Mordecai takes over the bigshot job Haman had.

https://www.thespruceeats.com/jewish-hamantaschen-cookies-recipe-1136141
https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/purim
https://www.israel21c.org/making-some-noise-on-purim/

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Maybe that’s why medias res got moved to the front

A really big scroll

Scrolls have a drawback: you can’t bookmark a page. If you want to read something that’s in the middle of a book, you will have to unroll the whole megillah until you find it.

https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/reading-the-megillah/
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/megillah
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a57YrrOVhOk

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Scrolls are still around

Parchment scrolls are still used today for important documents. In a Jewish synagogue, the Torah is written on a scroll. As the rabbi reads from it, he uses a yad to point to the words so his hand doesn’t touch the holy text.

There’s a tiny hand at the end, pointing a finger

You may have noticed me fretting about animal welfare for the last few posts. My pal (and Western Civ User’s Guide Irregular) Ilene told me that Torah scribes—sofers—who write on parchment are trained to be kosher butchers (click here and scroll down to the comments—also here, scroll down). They’re taught to have compassion for G-d’s creatures whose bodies furnish the parchment His Word is written on.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_scrolls
https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/torah-scroll/
https://www.worldofjudaica.com/judaica/torah-pointers
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/kosher
Warning: this link may be unsettling; it talks about the kosher slaughtering of animals— https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/kosher-slaughtering-an-introduction/

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Les roules

So, getting back to parchment.



Parchment is durable and flexible. It’s doesn’t weigh much and is a whole lot easier to carry around than a bunch of clay tablets. Pages of parchment can be sewn one to another in a long strip so an entire epic poem or holy book can be written on it. Strips of parchment can be rolled up on rollers with handles—they are called scrolls.



Scrolls were important documents. The French call them roules and the word is echoed today in lists of important things like ‘roll call’ or ‘honor roll.’

Some scrolls were designed to be unrolled horizontally as you read them, others are unrolled vertically. As you unroll one end, you roll up the other. Reading online is like reading a vertical scroll. You ‘scroll down’ to keep reading.

https://www.themorgan.org/manuscript/182476
https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/dictionary/MED37800
https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Three-vellum-pieces-sewn-together-to-make-a-roll-Parchment-1455-x-175-mm-from-Pavia_fig1_282412085
According to this French chef, roulés à la confiture are quick and easy to make. If you make any please drop off a few at my house. My doctor tells me I’m not getting enough spongecake— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0D6PPaNujY

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Serifs


‘Serifs’ are those pointy corners of a lettering stroke. It’s thought that stonecutters came up with them to add a little flourish to their letters. But if you watch the videos I link to in my previous post, you see that a serif (or a ‘grace’) is the natural way to end a letter stroke when you write with a brush. So who knows who invented serifs—the stonecutters or the calligraphers?

The chiseled stroke without serifs

Side view of the V-shaped chiseled stroke

I used to think that serifs came about because it was difficult for stonecutters to chisel the end of a letterstroke, and the serif made that job easier. Nowadays I believe serifs were added to chiseled letters because they provide more surface to catch the sunlight. They enhance the letter’s visibility. Watch the video linked below of a guy carving 2 Rs—with and without serifs. He has no trouble ending the stroke. If you compare the two letters, the serifs on the left show a bit more deep shadow or bright light. They accentuate the ends of a stroke and make it easier to see.

https://stoneletters.com/blog/cutting-in-the-clouds-architectural-lettering
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xBJdhexwug
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/grace%20note

DON’T FORGET: Midnight tomorrow is the deadline to submit your Romans-looking-at-a-Greek-urn gag! The winner will be chosen Friday!

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