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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    In our everyday life here in the modern world, the wax tablet is no longer a necessity, having been superseded by cheap paper and smartphones for the temporary notes and lists we all jot down throughout our days.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

  • Calligraphic Beginnings: How it all began


    I was born an ugly child. Not so much that women ran away screaming and hid their faces, but my mother wasn't going to win any Gerber baby contests, if you know what I mean. I learned to walk, talk, read, and write like any child should.  My writing, however, was something that WOULD make women run away screaming. And by writing I mean penmanship, handwriting, chicken scratch.  It was the kind of chicken scratch that chickens made fun of because it was too sloppy. I mean even the messy chickens.

    Messy chickens

    It wasn't that I LIKED bad handwriting, or thought everyone else was crazy because they couldn't read it. 

    Honestly, I couldn't read it either.

    I am a calligrapher and illuminator, a scribe if you will.  I was first introduced to calligraphy when I was in fifth grade at 10-11 years old.  My mother was my 5th grade teacher at a private school at the time and she decided that we were all going to try some calligraphy for art, or something like that.  She bought calligraphy markers and the whole class played with them for a while and then went on to other things.  I didn't. I didn't like the calligraphy markers because their tips couldn't make narrow enough lines.  The calligraphy book showed that I should be able to make something prettier and not the chunky lines I kept getting with the markers.  I promptly took my saved allowance and spent $10 on a Schaeffer calligraphy fountain pen. (I brought in about $2 a week at that point in my life).

    I took the pen with me everywhere, lost it, found it again, wrote with it some more.  I practiced my italic letter forms during sermons at church in the margins of the bulletins.  I was by no means good at it, I just really, REALLY like it.  My normal handwriting was still worthless, but I now had calligraphy... whatever that meant.

    I would become distracted by other pursuits, but would always come back to my calligraphy whenever I found my pens.

    I progressed to dip pens and bottled ink, and my calligraphy improved, however it wasn't until college that a floodgate broke.

    As would be expected, given my passion for calligraphy... I majored in chemistry.

    Ok, so maybe that wouldn't be expected, but if you knew how much I liked science and fireworks you would understand. My academic major fulfilled my analytical side, but my artistic side still needed an outlet and calligraphy seemed to be it (it was either that or basket weaving which seemed a little TOO normal for me).

    I made my first batch of iron gall ink when our oak tree became covered in oak galls, it worked fine, except it was a bit more brown than black.  I used to spend time sitting at my desk doing calligraphy by candlelight because it made me feel like I was a monk in the scriptorium in Lindisfarne (I told you basket weaving wasn't for me...) I started my first illuminated manuscript on cheap paper with my brownish iron gall ink using a steel-nib dip pen. It wasn't exactly a great historically accurate portrayal of illuminated mansucripts. I actually still have it somewhere...ah, here it is.

    I told you it was bad. I mean, seriously, a 30 degree pen angle for insular? What was I thinking.

    I've never finished it, as I realized that it was, too big, the wrong line spacing, the wrong materials, etc., etc., to be even remotely historic.  I abandoned this project and continued my calligraphy by doing poems and bible verses for family members and friends.

    Once I left home for real college it got worse (I was at community college before), I bought some real papyrus from Egypt (Ah, ebay...) and started duplicating ancient Greek texts. This sufficed for about a year, but I had started to yearn to try real parchment.

    Known by some as vellum others as parchment (I'll go into this at a later date), it is made by dehairing, thinning, and stretching animal hides to produce a very fine, lightly toothed writing surface.  It is the ultimate in writing surfaces.  There is a serious problem, however, in using it as my medium.  It costs upwards of $40...per square foot, and, at the time, I could only find it purchasable by the whole skin.

    The opportunity (read as "justification") to purchase parchment presented itself in the form of a Shakespeare class. We were given a project option and I decided to make a patent bestowing the duchy of Hereford upon Henry Bolingbrook.  It was a relevant project, and I had my reasons (like using real parchment...).  I used my handmade iron gall ink, still too brown and not enough black, I made egg tempera using dry poster paints (yep, I wasn't good at this) and gilded with imitation gold leaf.  Once I was done with it I was supremely proud of it.

    Henry Bolingbrook, Duke of Hereford, in all it's middle English glory

    I now keep this around to remind myself of all of the mistakes I made and how much is historically wrong with it.  I have learned much since then and continue to improve.  I now use historic pigments, make much better inks and paints, and my hand has improved.

    I've started an illuminated insular manuscript of Jonah in latin.

    I still can't read my own cursive handwriting. Almost no-one can read my print. But my calligraphy is pretty.

     

    Scribe and Chemist,

    Lucas Tucker

    Aug 01, 2012