Have found yourself using a pen and wondering how medieval people created ink? After living through lock down, multiple hurricanes, and common short power outages, I often wonder how long I could go without access or money to purchase items from the store. As I begin to compile the list of “essentials” I find that paper and ink are always somewhere near the top.
We don’t think about prioritizing this as a matter of survival, but as someone constantly running her pen dry when I wrote entire manuscripts by hand, how to make ink has always been an interesting thought. Though it’s unlikely most of us will try these recipes—except perhaps in desperate circumstances—it is fascinating to know how they were done.
So today we’re going to explore several ways that our medieval ancestors created ink to write their masterpieces on vellum paper. For sake of space, I will be listing the steps in my own words.
Medieval Ink with Modern Ingredients
This ink uses ingredients that an average person may still be able to access with a bit of effort. The original recipe does not have measurements.
- Separate egg whites from the yokes and put the whites into a bowl.
- Mix well with soot. Note: soot is not the same thing as ash. It is the black that rises with the flame and coats the chimney, not the substance the fire leaves behind. To see one way to collect soot, here is a video.
- Mix honey into the ink until it is smooth enough to write.
Medieval Ink with Hawthorn Bark
This second recipe was found inside a twelfth century manual written by Theophilus called “On Divers Arts.” It focuses on creating ink from the hawthorn tree and a much more intensive process.
- Cut pieces of hawthorn wood, around April or May, before they leaf or bloom.
- Tie them in little bundles and leave in the shade for 2-4 weeks to let them dry out a little.
- Use a wooden mallet to pound the branches against another piece of wood to separate the bark.
- Immediately put the bark into a barrel full of water until you have 2-5 barrels filled.
- Let the barrels stand for 8 days until the water draws out the sap.
- Strain the water into a clean pan or cauldron, place over fire, and boil.
- Boil the bark a little at a time to draw out any remaining sap. When it seems spent, remove the bark and add more until all the bark has been boiled.
- Boil off the water until only 1/3 of the liquid remains.
- Pour liquid into a smaller pan and continue to boil until it grows black and thickens. Be careful not to add any water back into the caldron.
- When it begins to thicken, pour 1/3 part of pure wine into the mixture, then move the mixture to 2 or 3 new pots.
- Continue boiling until you see a skin form across the top of the mixture.
- Remove the pots from the fire and place in the sun until the black separates from the red dregs.
- Next, take some small, carefully sewn parchment bags with bladders inside, pour the pure ink into them, and hang them in the sun until the ink has dried, leaving a powdery mixture.
- Whenever you want to write, take some of the dry material, warm it with wine over the fire, add a little green vitriol (iron sulphate) and write.
- If your ink isn’t as black as you like, take a piece of iron the size of your finger, heat it in the fire until it’s red hot, and add it into the ink.
I’m not sure we’ve yet found a good way to create ink in the event of an unexpected ink shortage, but now you have an interesting tidbit to insert into your next dinner party conversation or write into your medieval novel.
And we can all take a moment to appreciate the individual who spent so much time boiling bark, so we can read the words our ancestors wrote so long ago. And if you’re wondering what Irish people ate before they ever heard of potatoes, check out What the Ancient Irish Ate.