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  • A Brief History of the Wax Tablet

    The wax tablet has been around for a long time.  It pre-dates the Romans, who made good use of it, and when Rome fell the wax tablet stayed around, like the useful and flexible tool it was, and made itself useful through the medieval and renaissance eras, even being used into the 20th century.

    In our everyday life here in the modern world, the wax tablet is no longer a necessity, having been superseded by cheap paper and smartphones for the temporary notes and lists we all jot down throughout our days.  It can still be useful though, and not solely to educators or re-enactors.  There remains space in our fast paced world for the humble wax tablet, far removed as we may be from the environment and circumstances in which it was invented.

    Thus, in the spirit of both educating people about and furthering the use of the wax tablet today, here is a short look at what a tax tablet is, and a very brief overview of what it was used for in medieval and renaissance era Europe.

    A Greek man using a wax tablet (note that this one has three panes rather than only two)

    In its simplest form, a wax tablet is basically a panel of wood that has had most of the wood removed from the center (usually leaving an edge of undisturbed wood about ¼ inch around the perimeter of the tablet).  That carved out center is then filled with pigmented beeswax (i.e. beeswax that has had pigment (read as “fancy dirt”) added to it).  The pigment does two things – it creates a better texture for the writing surface, making the wax just pliable enough to write in, but not so flexible that it won’t hold designs or writing, and makes the writing more visible.  A stylus, historically made of iron, was then used to write on the wax surface, and to erase the writings once they were no longer needed.  In a world where affordable and easily made paper did not exist, such a writing surface, one that was infinitely re-usable, was incredibly valuable, to say the least.  And that is probably one of the reasons why the Romans, those clever people, made such wide use of the wax tablet.

    A Roman painting of a girl holding a wax tablet and stylus (note that this tax tablet has three panes)

    Many people associate wax tablets with the Romans, who did in fact make extensive use of it, but this particular writing implement actually predates the Romans.  It was in use before the Roman Empire began its inexorable march across the western world, and the Romans, who knew a good thing when they saw it, adopted it with enthusiasm.  Clever though they were, the Romans nevertheless saw their empire come to an eventual end.  The wax tablet, however, did not end with the Roman Empire, and continued to be widely used by many people for many things for centuries. 

    In the medieval and renaissance eras the wax tablet was widely used in Europe.  It was certainly used by scribes and illuminators for both drawing and writing.  Illuminators at least used it for simple drawing in the medieval ages, as there are accounts of drawings of the Holy Sepulchre and other churches being brought back to Europe on wax tablets (Medieval, Andrews).  We know that scribes made more extensive use of their tablets from the illuminated manuscripts left to us.  Take a look at this example, which is a detail of a manuscript from the British library’s digitized collection of illuminated manuscripts.  

    Royal 3 A V f.2 , author Gregory the Great, Commentary on Ezekiel, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century

    This is a 12 century depiction of Gregory the Great about to begin work on his commentary of Ezekiel.  The illumination appears at the beginning of a page in the manuscript, in an uppercase letter and shows Gregory the Great with a wax tablet and stylus in the process of beginning work on his commentary.  Why use expensive parchment to sketch out your ideas or outline a first draft when you have a wax tablet?

    Wax tablets also formed a part of how medieval scribes pictured long past writers.  Here is a detail of an illuminated manuscript from the end of the 12th or beginning of the 13th century (around the same time period as the Gregory the Great manuscript above) depicting the apostle John beginning the gospel of John on a wax tablet.    

    Royal 4 D III, Last quarter of the 12th century or 1st quarter of the 13th century. 

    Wax tablets were also used for managing accounts. A wax tablet from Cîteaux Abbey in France, dating from around 1300 is an “accompts” for the abbey. The items on the tablet have been crossed out, most likely as each item was copied onto parchment for permanent storage (2). I don’t have a picture available, but if you’re in ever in the vicinity of the British Library, you could always pop in and ask (ever so sweetly) if they will let you take a look at Add MS 33215 in their archives (yes, they actually have this wax tablet).

    So, wax tablets have certainly made themselves useful for a long time, and for many people. These are only a few examples of how they were used in medieval and renaissance era Europe, and there are many more to be found. In our modern world, they can be still be useful in many different ways. Tune in next week for a look at how to use wax tablets, and some ways that you can use them today (in garb and out of garb).

    Bethany Tucker

    Chief Cook and Bottle Washer

    Feb 03, 2018

    Additional Cited Works

    Medieval Illuminators and their Methods of Work by Jonathan J. G. Alexander, 1992, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

    Add MS 33215