Sunday, January 02, 2005

Pre-1600 Waste Management Pape

(Note: I have removed the footnotes and pictures from this article. Please email me if you have questions.)

Because You Are Wondering Why

I blame family tradition on my interest in this topic. When I was a young girl, my father would pile us up in the van and go for Sunday drives with us in the country. It was our job to stare out the window and yell if we spotted a privy. When we spotted a little house out in back of the barn or old farmhouse, we’d pull over, and Da would get the camera to go take pictures. Sometimes the owner would come out and talk to us, and sometimes one of us would pose shyly holding the door open. Of course if the thing was actually still used, we wouldn’t go anywhere near it because of the smell. Most were falling apart, and a few were converted to tool sheds. My father took all of the pictures and used them to update a humorous slide show that he inherited from his father. Da is still occasionally offering this slideshow to various civic organizations for the entertainment value. Researching this topic was moderately easy- all I had to do was raid the family library. Unfortunately, my father’s books were primarily focused on the Americana aspects that do not fall within the pervue of our period, and my grandfather’s texts were focused more upon the humor inspired by the necessary. Therefore I did get to research more than my predecessors, and I’ve been sharing all of these gems with my father. It also makes me wish I’d known my grandfather better, as he surely would have appreciated this effort. “To the historian,” says Siegried Giedion, “there are no banal things.”

In the beginning

The earliest written sanitation laws of which I am aware appear in the Bible, in Deuteronomy 23:12-14: “Also you shall have a place outside the camp, where you may go out; and you shall have an implement among your equipment, and when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and turn and cover your refuse. For the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and give your enemies over to you; therefore your camp shall be holy, that He may see no unclean thing among you and turn away from you.” The city of Jerusalem had a Dung Gate, and outside of that was an area called gehenna or no man’s land where the dung was left. Gehenna was also interpreted as Hell in Hebrew, and there is some speculation that this is what was meant when Jesus went to Hell to speak with Satan.

The palace of Knossos, Crete

Much has been said of the marvelous flushing toilets at the palace, mostly by folks enthusiastic about the idea of flushing toilets being period. Frankly, if we were confronted with these innovative toilets that we would recognize them as flushies, and probably be surprised by the smell- albeit these are probably sweeter smelling than other arrangements of the time. The palace at Knossos in Minos around 2000 BC had a drainage system made from terra cotta pipes that drained into sewers. The pipes had handles not for ease of handling, but so they could be lashed together and not move out of place (See fig. 1).

Each quarter of the palace had its own drainage system, which were flushed by torrential rainwater collected from the roof. The Minoans evidently delighted in hydraulic devices, and used such refinements of the science as parabolic curves in the water channels to control to water pressures and flow, and planned for the precipitation of sediment in intermediary catch pits.

Fig 1. Terra cotta pipes in the palace at Knossos and how they fit together.

Figure 2 is a layout of one of the latrines on the ground floor of Knossos. It is fairly obvious that there should be a wooden seat, and there is a drain that is flushed by the rainwater. There is some thought that there should be an earthenware pan, with a way of flushing it from above.

Even without the pan and flushing from above, these were kept clean enough to minimize smell and remarkably hygienic.

Fig. 2 Layout of latrine in Knossos.

Closed sewers in the Indus Valley

In the ancient cities of the Indus valley, flourishing from about 2500 to 1500 BC, many houses had drains that led to closed sewers. These led to pits that needed to be periodically emptied. Each house’s wastewater went into the street drains by way of brick lined pits with outlets about ¾ of the way up, rather like modern septic tanks and grit chambers. Some earthenware pipes, latrines, and masonry sewers of some Mesopotamian cities from 1500 BC are still in use today.

Fig. 3 An early closed sewer at Mohenjo-Daro with stone slab covers.

The Egyptians found the easiest way to get rid of unwanted articles was to carry them to the edge of the desert and abandon things there. The dry heat desiccated anything fairly rapidly. While there were bathrooms in most households, the focus was mainly as a place to bathe. The bather sat in a shallow stone basin, oils were poured on, and then rinsed with water. These would drain into vases that would be manually emptied later. A limestone seat was braced over another vase for taking one’s ease, and this vase also was emptied later. In one example, there were a couple of hollows beside the seat that may have held clean sand for wiping.

Egyptians did use piping from cisterns and from the river, either made with copper (which could not take the pressure to go far), or earthenware. Trenches were stone-carved or brick-lined in the middle of the street to help with drainage, but were not clogged with personal filth. Herodotus thought the Egyptians strange for performing the offices of nature at home, while eating publicly in the streets, but perhaps that tells us more about what the Greeks did in their own lives. While the great philosophers did ponder Utopias, none of them considered alternatives to the filth in their streets.

Fig. 4 Egyptian limestone seat, 1370 BC, in Tel el Armana

All Roads Lead to Rome, All Sewers in Rome Lead to the Cloaca Maxima

The great sewer, the Cloaca Maxima was built in Rome around 500 BC, by the king Tarquinius Sperbus (and later expanded by the king Commodius around 180 AD). This brick-lined covered sewer disgorged into the Tiber and was large enough to take a rowboat along its length to inspect it thoroughly, as Agrippa did when he was aedile in 33 BC. There were seven branches- one for each hill- and rich customers had to pay to be connected to the sewer. At least one connection would be near the kitchen for refuse and convenience, but as these sewers were not vented, the gas could easily come up the pipe whenever the lid was opened. These sewers were also used to drain the streets during rainstorms, and rainwater was the main source of cleansing both streets and sewers. Parts of the Cloaca Maxima are still in use today.

Pliny reports that these sewers were mainly constructed through slave and convict labor, and the shame was so great at being forced to work on the construction was so great, the order was given that all suicides were to be crucified and left on display with no burial permitted. This was deterrent enough to get the job finished. Convicts were also used to keep the sewers clean and unclogged. Enterprising merchants outside their shops left vases called “gastra” on sidewalks. Everyone used these as public urinals. The collected urine was sold to dyers and tanners and other merchants, as human urine is effective at removing grease and as a mordant and cheap dye, with the main active ingredient of ammonia. The emperor Vespasian was inspired by these merchants to build several public latrines. A trench around the middle collected urine, which was sold to merchants who could use it, and the rest was connected to the sewer. These latrines offered no privacy at all, and often men could gather in them and socialize, as they socialized in the public baths. Buckets of seawater would hold sticks with pieces of sponge tied to them, which were used for wiping.

Fig. 5 Examples of Roman latrines.

The poorer folks who could not afford to be connected to the sewer system used jars in their rooms, which were then emptied into public cesspits. Every night, city-paid workers would empty the cesspits, and cart the contents out of town in wagons to be used as fertilizer. Those who could not afford a pot or to pay a fee for entry to the public latrines would use the street or a staircase landing.

The Roman goddess of the sewer was Cloacina. She received prayers for the smooth running of one’s personal drainage systems as well as the preservation and hygiene of the public drainage systems. Stercutius was the god of dung itself and of its myriad uses. Crepitus was the god of convenience and flatulence- he received special prayers when afflicted with the runs.

Sir John Harrington recommended the emperor Vespasion to be deified with the name “Urinatius or Urina, as god of the uses of urine and means to make money from it, as Stercutius is of soyle.”

At Home, in the Middle Ages

The Roman tradition of public latrines continued, just as the public baths did for quite a while after the empire fell. The Church denounced bathing as sinful, and embraced filth as an outward display of penance. One saint was canonized for not bathing in her lifetime, as she did not wish to wash off the holy water received at her baptism. These public latrines were connected to public sewers, had a cesspit that must be emptied, or were conveniently located near running water so they could empty directly into the stream or river. London Bridge, for example, had a public latrine that serviced the 138 houses on the bridge, and was large enough to have two doors as one person managed to escape his creditors by slipping out another door. The private homes on the bridge also sometimes had their own direct chute to the river, making it a hazardous enterprise to “shoot the bridge.” Indeed, it was often said of London Bridge, “Wise folk go over it, and only fools go under it.” Several homes would have private cesspits, and some would share facilities. Sometimes, a narrow bridge would have a wooden seat with a hole in it would connect two houses over a yard, over an open cesspit, over a stream, or even over an alleyway. The cesspits would need be emptied on a regular basis, and this job was held by the gangfermours. This was possibly the best-paid menial job available. They would empty the cesspits into large jars that would be carted out of town, where the nightsoil was sold to farmers as fertilizer. Gangfermours would also maintain the sewers and cleaned the streets. Unfortunately, using a stream to cart off the sewage didn’t always work- occasionally the stream became overwhelmed. In the 14th century, Fleet River, so named because it was originally a fast moving stream, became so clogged with three sewers and twelve public latrines emptying into it that the stream was eventually paved and became Fleet Street. (of course, that may explain the nature of some of the journalism yonder... just kidding. Fortunately no one drank from the Thames or other streams so used- water was piped in from outlying areas.

Fig. 6. An example of a bridge privy connecting two houses over an open cesspit.

Private jugs were still used within the home, and dumped out of the window with the cry of “Guardez-l’eau!” which is probably where the word loo came from. Laws did state when these offerings could be lobbed, and heavy fines were imposed on those who emptied their jugs out of hours or landed on those travelers unlucky enough to be walking below. It is possible that the etiquette of men walking on the streetside of their ladies as they walk on the sidewalk comes from the fact that the inside pedestrian would be protected by the building overhang, but equally probably that this would protect the lady from the cart traffic and splashed stuff from the roadway.

Privacy while using the necessary did not begin to be popular until the 16th century, when homes began to be built with small chambers where one could go in solitude. Euphemisms were as popular then as they are now, so these chambers would be referred to as “the house of honor”, “the chapel”, and the “closet.” Wright even suggests that most “priest-holes” are in fact examples of these private rooms, and because they were referred to as the “chapel” or other similar name in record, they were misinterpreted as places where catholics were hidden. Sometimes they would be the traditional seat over a cesspit, but for the rich, a new fashion was the close-stool as furniture in the room.

Close-stools were wooden boxes, sometimes built as cabinets, sometimes disguised as a stack of books, and even as a dresser. Traveling versions had locks and handles, so only the owner could use them. The top was a lid that could be lifted to reveal a comfortable seat with an appropriate hole for the owner to be comfortable. These were often covered in velvet and stuffed with down. Inside was a typical jug that could be removed and emptied by servants. The outside of the close-stool could also be covered in luxurious fabric and trimmed in lace and gilt nails. Sir John Harrington railed against using the velvet and expensive items “which is flat against the statute of aparell.” These close-stools were also draped in black for mourning when the user passed on.

Fig. 7. This close-stool is on display in Hampton Court, and is rumored to have been used both by Elizabeth I and James I. There’s a nice large lock on the front, and the seat is well padded. While not obvious in this print, there are carrying handles on the sides, so the possessor could take this necessary with them on Royal Progresses.

On Garderobes

While privies (or private rooms for the use of the necessary) were also called garderobes because of the euphemistic vernacular- it would be like referring to the cloakroom today – I tend to associate garderobes as those structures built into the stone walls of castles. These were important features, as one could not casually slip out to the house out back if one’s castle was under siege. Occasionally castles were built over a stream, which offered the benefit of clean water coming in, and sewage drainage coming out. However these streams were often a weak point in the castle’s defense and many an invading army crept in by wading the stream. When the stream was diverted to go around the castle either in part or surrounding like a moat, garderobes were usually built with a chute that drained out into the moat. Care had to be taken so that the chutes were high enough so that invaders would not crawl inside. Also, multiple storied garderobes would share the same exterior chute, for the convenience of crafting, and to serve many at once. If the walls were thin, garderobes sometimes were built jutting out of the wall like bay windows, and the hole would be directly over thin air. And occasionally, the garderobe would simply fill up a space between the walls, and then be plugged when full. Obviously, if the wind blew up the chute, the garderobe could be quite drafty, and is sometimes referred to as a “draught.” Garderobes were often built into the sides of chimneys for warmth, and as an aid to draw the smell up the chimney and away from the user.

Fig. 8. Garderobes stacked in multi-stories, with many side by side. Note how the upper layer is recessed further back, so there is plenty of room for the chute, and no chance of spray on the lower denizens.

Fig. 9. A garderobe with a place for a wooden seat in the White Tower in London, off the banquet hall. Henry VIII installed this for privacy.

When I visited Britain in 1990, I was privileged to visit Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness in Scotland. In the tower still standing, I found a cracked seat that was in an alcove that jutted out over the water. I believe it to be a garderobe used by the patrolling guards. Any waste would fall into the loch below. I also visited Warwick Castle, and I’m not sure where I was in the curtain wall between the armory and the courtyard, but I passed two cubicles that were marked as “privies”. One had its seat plugged entirely, and the other had a fine grate to discourage anyone from putting anything down it. These were both wide enough to comfortably move around in, as wide as the average public stall today. The seats were recessed in about a foot from the hallway, and there was about a foot of stone wall between them. There did not appear to be any mechanism for covering them for privacy, and there were no windows for light, although there was a small window in the hall. The seats were stone with a typical size hole cut inside.

Fig. 10. Typical inside view of a stone garderobe, and a typical outside view of a chute.p>

Life in Monasteries

Because the Rules that described cloistered life were strict in dictating each movement of the monks, they did everything together at the same time, including using the lavatory. Consequentially, we have surviving records of huge latrines established to seat 150 monks at once or more. In many monasteries, the “reredorter” or sanitary wing was linked to the dormitory by a bridge, serving as the equivalent of the ventilated lobby of modern bylaws. At Furness, the seats were ranged back to back in a double row, but usually they were set against the wall in one long single row and divided with partitions. Below would be a natural stream, or perhaps diverted, to carry away the filth produced. These streams were often made to run under the kitchen and infirmary as well, and were often covered for some distance. It is possible that hidden passages leading to monasteries may be in fact dried up streambeds or former sewers. Water flushing from above was incredibly rare, but at St. Albans, the Abbott built a stone cistern to store rainwater for this purpose serving a single necessary for his own use. Of excavations in St. Albans in 1927, they did find a deep pit. At the bottom were found pieces of pottery and fragments of coarse cloth, which is thought to have been old gowns torn up and used as toilet paper by the monks. It is likely that that the monks suffered digestive troubles, as proved by the finding of seeds of buckthorn- a powerful aperient.

Other Wiping Options

Sir John Harrington, in his defense of his book, describes more offensive texts than his. In particular, he describes one text that I would love to find other descriptions of or extant: “a beastlie treatise only to examine what is the fittest thing to wype withal, allegeding that white paper is too smooth, brown paper too rough, woolen cloth too stiffe, linen cloth too hollow, satten too slippery, taffeta too thin, velvet too thick, or perhaps too costlie; but he concludes, that a goose necke to be drawne between the legs against the feathers, is the most delicate and cleaning thing that may be.” Later in his text, he offers up the pages of his text for that same use if the reader still finds the information within to be offensive. That would be “the worst punishment it can have is but to employ it in the house it shall treat off.” Therefore, I assume that many texts printed in the late 16th century were used just like the Sears catalog in the early/mid 20th century. Sir John also comments that being too lazy to wipe should not be condemned, as surely any competent laundress can remove the stains from one’s linen. Therefore what one uses to wipe is largely irrelevant.p>

The Man Before His Time

As early as 1449, one Thomas Brightfield of the parish of St. Martin built some kind of water closet, flushed by piped water from a cistern, but this was much before its time and was never imitated.

The Reason We Call Them Johns

In 1596, Sir John Harrington, one of the Queen’s godsons, wrote a book called “A New Discourse on a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax.” He did receive a great deal of criticism for writing about such a topic, and ridicule for his invention, which the treatise describes in full. Eventually, the Queen did have one installed in her palace in Southampton, and there is some debate as to whether or not she actually used the thing.

Harrington tells the story behind the title in a rambling way. One young man, needing more material to wipe himself, requested that a certain sacred field be mowed for his ease. This field was sacred to Ajax, for in the Trojan War, he was insulted and humiliated by Ulysses, which sent him off in a fit of anger to this field. He slew everything in it, and them himself, and from the blood spilled grew luxurious grasses reserved to feed the descendants of Bucephalous. The young man was caused by pains to travel around the world seeking relief, and even went as far as Japan, and back home again. Once home, he built a splendid privy and dedicated it to Ajax, which is why some still call it a jakes today.

Before Harrington gets to the meat of the matter, he explains that he prefers to dwell within a sweet smelling house- meaning that one which lacks overwhelming odor. “For smoking chimnies, many remedies have bene studied, but one excellent and infallible way is found out among some of the great Architects of the age, namely to make no fyre in them, and by the same rule, have some very sweet Jakes too.” Alas, one does not get that luxury, so he comments on other common designs of the time.

The first design involves a making a closed pit and line it with lime and “tarries” – an old mortar and cement mixture – “with no way for wind to stir it, and it should smother the smell as darkness smothers a candle.” This cesspit style only works until it is filled, and “too much wind is generated by too frequent use.”

<>The next design involves building the seats in a chimney, so that the air may be vent out of the house. “But this is not fre of all infection or annoyance while one is there” for if the wind shifts the wrong way and blows down the chimney, the odor is moved throughout the house.

Therefore, the design Harrington favors is of his own devising, to whit: “And not to hold in too long suspense, the device is this: you shall make a false bottom to that privie that you are annoyed with, either of lead or stone, the which bottome shall have a sluice of brass to let out all the filth, which if it be close plaistered all about it and renced with water as oft as occasion serves, but specially at noone and at night, will keep your privie as sweet as your parlour.”

Fig. 11. The parts laid out on display for Harrington’s improved jakes.

The parts as described:

“A. the cesterne stone or bricke

B. D. E. the pype thatcomes from the cesterne with a stopple to the washer

C. a wast pipe

F. G. stem of the great stopple with a key to it

H. the forme of the upper brim of the vessel or stoole pot.

M. the stoole pot of stone or lead

N. the great brass sluice to which is three inches current, to send it down a gallop into the Jax.”

Fig. 12. The assembled Jakes, but I think the fish are merely a stylistic element.

The key for the assembled picture:

“A. the cesterne.

B. the little washer.

C. the wast pipe.

D. the seat boord.

E. the pipe that comes from the Cesterne.

F. the Screw.

G. the scallop shell to cover it when it is shut down.

H. the stoole pot.

I. the stopple.

K. the current.

M. N. the vault into which it falls: always remember that "at noone and night, emptie it and leave it halfe a foote deepe in fayre water. And this being well done, and orderly kept, your worst privie may smell as sweet as your best chamber. But to conclude all this in a few wordes: it is but a standing close stoole easily emptied. And by like reason (other formes and proportions observed) all other places of your house may be kept sweet.”

I realize that modern sensibilities would cringe about flushing twice a day whether it need it or no, but the innovation of leaving water in the pan was a predecessor to the water kept in the U-bend- which is know for keeping the gasses from escaping into the room. This alone would improve the smell. Alas, like the creation of Thomas Brightfield, Harrington’s invention was widely ignored, although his text was preserved.

An Addendum for the Modern Middle Ages

For the ultimate luxury for your period encampment, one could consider the virtues of a close-stool for your camp. For modern hygiene purposes one would need to modify it slightly. One could design the close stool to disguise a chemical toilet, or plastic line the inside (or alternatively, line with wax or pitch), and create handles to hold plastic baggies to catch. Then one could tie off the bags, tightly seal them, and dispose of them each morning. I would not recommend it for daily use, but for those evenings and early hours of the morning when one isn’t sure what one would encounter outside of the safe confines of one’s tent. And certainly, the older I become, the more this concept appeals. My father would recommend a wide PVC pipe tightly sealed on one end with a tightly fitting cap on the other end for used plastic bag storage, and perhaps this could be kept within the cabinet, or another carrying case. Such PVC devices are used by low-impact campers- when everything that goes in must be carried out, and with no spills. Obviously, digging a proper cesspit in any campground or creating compost would not be sanitary or permitted.


Barzilay, Joshua L., Winkler G. Weinberg and J. William Eley. The Water We Drink: Water Quality and its Effects on Health. Rutgers Univeristy Press, NY 1999. ISBN 0-8135-273-6. Secondary.

Colman, Penny. Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks and Sewers: A History of the Bathroom. Macmillan, NY 1994. Secondary.

Donno, Elizabeth Story (ed. and commentary). Sir John Harrington’s A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax. Columbia University Press, NY 1962. Includes full reprint of the 1596 text. Primary.

“The History of Plumbing, Parts 1-8” Plumbing & Mechanical Magazine 10 (June 1993): 6-124, Also available at . Tertiary, as no sources are given.

Horan, Julie L. The Porcelain God: A Social History of the Toilet. Birch Lane Press, 1996. ISBN 1-55972-346-7. Secondary.

Kilroy, Roger. The Compleat Loo: A Lavatorial Miscellany. Barnes & Noble, NY 1984. ISBN 0-7607-0416-3. Tertiary text, Primary & secondary pictures.

Reynolds, Reginald. Cleanliness and Godliness. Doubleday, NY 1946. Tertiary/secondary. He cites references, but never fully.

Wright, Lawrence. Clean and Decent: The Unruffled History of the Bathroom and the W.C. Viking, NY 1960. Secondary.

Note: Pictures are snipped for copywright reasons.

Privy history bibiliography

Barzilay, Joshua L., Winkler G. Weinberg and J. William Eley. The Water We Drink: Water Quality and its Effects on Health. Rutgers Univeristy Press, NY 1999. ISBN 0-8135-273-6. Secondary.

Colman, Penny. Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks and Sewers: A History of the Bathroom. Macmillan, NY 1994. Secondary.

Donno, Elizabeth Story (ed. and commentary). Sir John Harrington’s A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax. Columbia University Press, NY 1962. Includes full reprint of the 1596 text. Primary.

“The History of Plumbing, Parts 1-8” Plumbing & Mechanical Magazine 10 (June 1993): 6-124, Also available at Tertiary, as no sources are given.

Horan, Julie L. The Porcelain God: A Social History of the Toilet. Birch Lane Press, 1996. ISBN 1-55972-346-7. Secondary.

Kilroy, Roger. The Compleat Loo: A Lavatorial Miscellany. Barnes & Noble, NY 1984. ISBN 0-7607-0416-3. Tertiary text, Primary & secondary pictures.

Reynolds, Reginald. Cleanliness and Godliness. Doubleday, NY 1946. Tertiary/secondary. He cites references, but never fully.

Wright, Lawrence. Clean and Decent: The Unruffled History of the Bathroom and the W.C. Viking, NY 1960. Secondary.

A better Calligraphy article.

Cheating at Calligraphy

I have been telling people for years that the way to cheat at calligraphy is with a light box and the ability to trace. But obviously, it can be a wee more detailed than this tossed over the shoulder comment. Good calligraphy can easily be a lot more involved than just that, and these tools can use more technical skills to become even more authentic, as well as be an excellent way to assist in the mastering of calligraphy.

One of the hardest parts is finding appropriate fonts that look right. I do recommend looking at examples of period hands before trying to pick a font on your computer. My favorite website for fonts is Coron’s Source of Fonts, but that page is often overloaded for its hit count. The website is
I like Gaelige and Theodoric, and a few of the others on that site.

Then you need to look at the piece you want to calligraph- how much space do you have? I do get out a ruler and measure it. I set up the word processing program’s borders to fit in that space, and try to pick a font and font size that will fill that space appropriately. Another thing to consider is that modern word processors and aesthetics are not the same as period hands. Look carefully at the spacing of your period exemplar and how close the lines and letters and words are. If you understand the formatting of your word processor, you should adjust the spacing appropriately to better approximate the look of period writing.

When you have the right size nib for the job, it's easy just to write over what you see with the light box, and try to match what is there. I have found it is good to have a second copy of the printout to look at for clarity, as well as a period *good* example of what the font is supposed to look like. When you don't have the proper size of pen, or for the big letters, it's easiest to trace the large letters and then fill in. Also, you can use a drawing pen for when you want to do the decorative connectors between letters that the computer fonts simply cannot do.

I have also sometimes done a tracing of the writing on a spare sheet of paper just to get into the flow of the writing before actually working on a scroll. This helps warm up my hand and build my muscle memory so that I can do the hand better. To learn a hand for the first time, this is often a good idea.

The nice things about using the light box to trace the calligraphy is that it can lower your chances for misspellings and forgetting words. You can use as authentic of materials as you wish, and no one will ever suspect you of tracing unless you tell them. Very few will approach you and ask if that's Lucinda or Diploma, or [other font name here], mainly because your copy will not be as precise as the printout, and it will look like you spent more time on it than you did.

Feel free to contact me with more questions, comments, or nice spots for fonts.

The easy way to do C&I

Can’t draw? Can’t do the fancy writing? Still want to do calligraphy or illumination? All you have to do is TRACE. They *did* trace patterns, either with a frame held over a candle, or on windows.

For illumination:

Either get a color photocopy, or scan in and print out a copy of the illumination with which you want to work. There are also several websites you may browse to find images to print out. They usually end up the most convenient size this way. Turn your good paper over, and tape the image to the back. This prevents it from sliding while you work (or more importantly, when you walk away from it for “just a moment”). Trace with pencil or pen & ink (depending on your confidence level). Then just paint between the lines as best you can. Ink the lines, and add any other finishing touches.

Measure the room left for writing. Write with a good word processor whatever you wish to say, with the rulers turned on. Adjust the margin to be your desired width, and ensure that the text doesn’t go longer than what you need. Don’t forget the signature lines! Adjust the font size to whatever fits best. But what font to use? This site: is the best site I have found as a source of fonts. He has an entire page devoted to historical fonts (page 2, although page 1 has runic fonts). I recommend Gaeildge1 for Celtic, Diploma or Linotext for classic Gothic hand, and Italian Cursive 16th Century for the obvious. There is also a Carolingian hand or two, but I am not as familiar with that font. You should study a few books on historical fonts so you may judge what looks proper. The foreign fonts like Armenian are the modern fonts.


AaBbCcDdEeFfGgHhIiJjKkLlMmNnOoPpQqRrSsTtUuVvWwXxYyZz - Diploma

AaBbCcDdEeFfGgHhIiJjKkLlMmNnOoPpQqRrSsTtUuVvWwXxYyZz - Carolingia

Armenian Illumination notes

The history of Armenian illumination depends a great deal on the history of Armenia itself. The Armenian alphabet was invented at roughly the same time as the entire country converted to Christianity- and it was the first country to convert as a nation. Illumination followed, and seems to be the high point of artistry in Armenian culture. There was some sculpture, but few other arts survived the centuries of instability- and illumination had the virtue of portability.

Due to the unstable nature of Armenia’s political climate through the ages, illumination only flourished in areas of tranquility. But what made it politically unstable, gave the illumination much richness and variety due to the juxtaposition of cultures and readily available rich materials. Armenia is located in Asia Minor, and both the Silk Road and various crusades traveled through it. It was also caught between the Byzantines, Persians and Mongol invaders. Artistic themes were borrowed heavily from Byzantium and Persia, and later from the Crusaders who brought French and other influences into the kingdom of Cilicia. Other influences are Hellenistic and even Chinese. Pigments were mined locally, or brought in via the Silk Road.

There are two main traditions of Armenian illumination: those commissioned by the priests themselves, and those commissioned by the rich (either nobility or merchants). The priests often lacked the funds for elaborate stuff, and these works were often gouache on paper and crudely executed, with little or no gold and a limited palate. The priests themselves occasionally painted them, with little or no training. The rich stuff was usually on vellum with lots of gold and a large brilliant palate with expensive pigments. Since the richer stuff is what people ooo and ahh over at Court and would prefer to receive, that is what I’ll focus my attention on.

The mostly highly prized and costly illuminated works were bound Gospels. These are bound in a unique fashion (for more description, see Treasures in Heaven) with intricate silver covered boards and end covers. The Gospels were never touched directly, but always held in a silk veil. The colophons at the end of the book usually described who created the book, who donated the book, and anything else of interest concerning the book- often including who rescued the book, either by ransom or by hiding and carrying to a safe place. These colophons always included requests to pray for their souls. These books were so treasured that it was felt that donating or rescuing a Gospel was like donating or rescuing a Church, and would ensure eternal salvation. The Gospels were opened with the Eusebian letter and then his canon tables. The letter explains how the canon tables are to be used for comparing similar passages in the four gospels. Then some Gospels included 4 to 16 pages of full page illustrations summarizing the life of Christ, although some books have this cycle before the canon tables. Next are the four gospels presented in order, usually with a full page portrait of the saint. The first page of the text is always lavishly illustrated with a cornice, illuminated main letter, and a tree of life on the right. Often, the animal symbolizing the saint is worked into the page- and these symbols are from Crusader influence (John-eagle, Matthew-angel, Mark-lion, Luke-ox). Often more marginal art, or half page illustrations break up the rest of the actual text, and usually, the first letters are enlarged. Finally, the colophons are added, with a portrait of the sponsor of the book. Sometimes the sponsor is added to the cycle pictures- taking part in the crucial scenes of the life of Christ. Queen Mareum, for example, is seen holding the clothes while the baby Jesus is washed after his birth. She appears in several pictures of the work she commissioned.

Given a choice, Armenian painters preferred to apply paint to the rough (hair) side of the vellum, to which pigments adhered more easily- this is why in luxury works, facing illustrations alternate with facing blank pages. They did little to prepare the vellum, but paper was sized before use. Ruled lines were created by pricking on the vellum near the outside edge and connecting the points with a stylus, or the vellum was dampened and pressed onto a ruling frame - a board with wires or strings attached. Pages were kept track by “numbering” the bottom of the pages- Armenians didn’t have a unique set of numbers, so they merely used corresponding letters. The illumination was first drawn, with a brown ink. Red bole (an earth based pigment) was applied before and under the larger areas of gold. The main pigments were white lead, vermilion, orpiment (yellow), natural ultramarine, red lake, and gold. Green was made by mixing orpiment with ultramarine, and this is why there is no whitework done on green, or yellowwork on blue. More organic pigments were added to the Armenian palette later but their use was rare before 1600. Egg yolk was the preferred binder for these pigments.

Gold was used in leaf for larger areas, and made into a paint for highlighting areas and fiddly bits like halos, just like in Byzantine art.

White lead is a traditional toxic pigment, and even Pliny gives a recipe for it.

Vermilion comes from cinnabar, and is an ancient pigment. Artificial vermilion was invented in China, and is found in Armenian illumination.

Orpiment is a mineral pigment mined in the Lake Van region of Armenia and elsewhere in Asia Minor. This bright lemony permanent yellow is no longer used because it’s poisonous.

Natural ultramarine is extracted from lapis lazuli, and is a medieval pigment mined in Afghanistan. This color, while expensive, is readily available in Armenia, and is always of the first quality.

Red lake is a magenta-red pigment prepared from the lac (secretion) of the laccifer or lacca, an insect of India and the Far East. Introduced by the Arabs and brought via the Silk Road, it is one of the most characteristic of Armenian colors. (Treasures in Heaven, 129)

In contrast, Byzantium pigments were usually organic, and less vibrant, although they used a much wider range of colors and pigments. Islamic art contains mostly mineral pigments, but they also use a wider range of pigments, including several natural greens like copper green and malachite. Islamic art also usually lacks gold and red lake.

The art itself was designed to be symbolic without set meanings for most symbols. The viewer was encouraged to meditate upon possible interpretations. While I am not learned enough in Byzantium, Persian and French illumination to tell you what elements came from which area, I can identify several common themes. The twisty vines and other geometric patterns are found in all three of their influencing lands. The elaborate trees of life usually appear on the first page of the actual gospels, but occasionally appear on the canon tables. Real trees are more common on the cannon tables. The triads are the most interesting decoration, in my opinion. They also appear in Russian illumination parallel to Armenian- and pre-dates extant examples in both cultures, as near as I can tell. The main difference is the lines of whitework or yellowwork in the triad. Triads appear as corner decoration, or in the center of labyrinth swirls, or integrated with a tree of life.

The order of painting (after the rough drawing with pale brown ink) seems to be red bole under the large areas of gold, and then the gold. Next comes red and blue, and these are the two main colors that cover everything. Then you add green, and green is either used alone, or on red to make it darker in some spots. Since green is a mixed color, it is not used a great deal in large areas. Then the yellow is used for some large areas, but usually just to accent the green and the red, in a manner similar to whitework, which I refer to as yellowwork. Yellow is never put on blue- because then it would be green. Then the whitework is added to the blue and red. Whitework is never put on green, and white and yellow never appear on the same patch of red. Then shell gold can be applied to richly accent some drawings- but this is not common, and usually replaces yellowwork in the piece.

T-Tunics for Dummies

Things needed: Fabric 2-3 yards of natural material, fabric tape or string, something to mark the fabric: chalk, pins, or other, scissors to cut the fabric, and a means of sewing: either needle and thread or a sewing machine with thread. Optional: a straight stick, and something to write the measurements down upon and with.

Determine how long you want your tunic by dropping the string or tape measure from the shoulder. Tunics usually fall between mid thigh and ground length, depending on gender, place and time. The “average” tunic is just above the knee.

Add an inch to that measurement. Now fold the fabric into quarters, and make sure the folded fabric is at least that length. Cut off the excess. Lay fabric flat.

Measure the chest at its widest point. If you used string, fold it into fourths and add an inch. If you used a tape measure divide by 4 and add an inch. Lay on the fabric, perpendicular to the length fold, and mark this.

If you have a stick, put it under your arm. Use the string to measure from one side of where the stick pokes out to the other side. Fold that in half (or divide by two) and add two inches. This is your arm measurement.

If you don’t have a stick, measure your arm at its widest point. Fold that in half (or divide by two) and add two inches. This is your arm measurement.

Lay the arm measurement perpendicular to the width fold. Mark this. Look at your two marks, and figure out where they can meet. This will be your armpit. You will also want to mark the chest measurement about a handspan (8” or so) down, and this will help define a waist for you. From the waist point, you can mark a line to the four loose corners of the fabric. From the armpit, you can mark a line either straight out along the width, or angled down to the four loose corners- depending on if you want angel wings. Note: angel wings should have extra sleeves underneath.

Go ahead and cut along the line you marked.

For a neckline: measure down the length three inches, and across the width by four inches. Cut off this triangle. You may make it curved.

Unfold the fabric and try it on. If you can’t get it on your head, cut a slit on one of the lengths. A partner should be able to reach under your arms and hold the fabric together where it will meet. Take it off.

Fold it so the sides that need to be sewn together can be sewn – in half along the width. Sew ¼ to 3/8” away from the edge on both sides. Then turn inside out. Sew ½ to 5/8” away from the edge, tucking in all the loose ends. This is called a French Seam, and will prevent your tunic from unraveling.

The hem is next. Pick a 6” or so section. Fold the fabric close to ½” and then fold it again, so it looks rolled. All raw fabric edge should be completely enclosed. Sew as close to the last fold as possible. Keep rolling the fabric as you sew, until the hem is completely sewn. The tricky bits are when you encounter another seam. These will need to be folded in to the hem to cover all raw edges.

For the neckline: when I am machine sewing, I pick a decorative stretch stitch and just fold over the top once and sew. Sometimes this decorative stitch is enough decoration to where trim isn’t needed. When I hand sew it, I roll like the hem, only very tiny- about 1/8” to ¼” instead of the ½” of the hem. It is easier to whipstitch like a button hole.

It isn’t necessary to finish the edges of the sleeves, but they look better with trim or matching decorative stretch stitch or even a smaller trolled hem.

To make a second t-tunic, fold the fabric in quarters and lay flat. Fold an already finished tunic in half lengthwise and lay on top of the folded fabric. Then mark the cutting line an inch in from the edge of the finished tunic.

Note: These were simple instructions for a class handout. I do not mind redistribution of this article provided I get credit. Also, this article is not claiming to make T-Tunics in a period fashion- just quickly and easily in a way most people can manage.

Making Simple Bag Cheeses / Cheese in Perio

[Turophile: A lover of cheese. Taken from the Greek word turos (cheese) and the root phil (love).]

Demonstration of Basic Lemon Bag Cheese (or camp cheese):


One Gallon Pot

Stirring Spoon (steel or wooden)

Cooking Thermometer




Small Container (butter bowl, etc.)

Milk – 2 qt.

Heavy Cream – 1/2 pt. (Optional)

Lemons – 2 to 3


Herbs to taste

Sterilize all equipment to be used except the cheesecloth, by placing it all in the pot, filling up ½ with water, and bringing to a boil for at least ten minutes. Drain water and set equipment on sterile dry surface. (Clean paper towels work well.) Put the two quarts of milk into the pan and apply medium heat. (Optionally, at this point you may add the heavy cream for a higher yield of cheese and a creamier texture, however this is far from the weight watcher’s option!) Suspend the thermometer into the milk and keep on the heat until the milk reaches 180 degrees F.

NOTE: When doing this in the field (camp conditions) and in a more period style, a thermometer need not be used. But you should get to know how warm 180 degrees F is. It’s much hotter than you would care to stick your finger into, but still short of boiling. If your milk begins to boil, add some chocolate to it and drink it, but don’t use it for cheese. Boiling milk changes its consistency such that it will not form a good curd.

While the milk is heating, cut the lemons in half and juice them into a small cup/glass. The juice of two lemons is sufficient to make this amount of cheese, but three will give it a more pronounced (but still light) lemony flavor. After the milk reaches the desired temperature, remove it from the heat and pour the lemon juice into it while gently stirring. Keep stirring for several minutes until the milk has begun separating into curds and whey. Let sit for up to 15 minutes until the curds are fully separated.

Pour the mixture into a cheesecloth lined colander, and allow the greater portion of the whey to drain out. Grab the cheesecloth by its four corners, and tie it into a small bag. Hang this bag over a sink or draining pot (to catch the whey) until it stops dripping regularly. (Less draining time will make a moister, more spreadable cheese – longer draining will result in a drier cheese which will keep somewhat longer.) Cheesecloth has been known to man, albeit in a cruder form, since at least the 1400’s. However, it was not the only method used. If you wish to follow a period method that was used in Italy from medieval times, right up to the twentieth century, get yourself a tightly woven wicker basket and dump your curds into that to drain and set. It will work, but you may lose a bit more curd, and you must be meticulous in sterilizing it when you clean it, as compared to cheesecloth, which you can either throw away, or wash in the laundry.

When the cheese is done draining, untie the bag and scrape the cheese into a sealable container (such as a margarine container) or onto some plastic wrap. At this point, a small sprinkling of salt can be applied. Optionally, herbs of your choice, such as sage, parsley, chives, etc. may be added and mixed in as well. Seal up the cheese and chill for several hours. (overnight is preferred to allow the flavor to set.)

Two quarts of milk should yield 12 to 14 ounces of lemon cheese. This may be kept for up to one week if refrigerated. It is excellent to spread on bagels, toast, or bread for sandwiches, or on crackers.


Curdling Agents: Since Lemons were not well known in Europe till very late in period, lime (African) may be substituted. For a non-citrus variation, add ¼ cup of vinegar instead of the lemon juice. White or flavored vinegar may be used. Be aware that this will change the texture and flavor of the resulting cheese, more along the lines of a modern “Queso Blanco”. Many other curdling agents were used in period. Two plants are referred to in one early English account, Butterwort and Lady’s Straw. The butterwort, however, is obviously not the same as we know in the United States today, as it is described as a “thistle”. What the Lady’s Straw might have been is a mystery which I have not yet solved. There is also documentation for green fig tree bark being used. The ultimate, of course, is rennet from the 4th stomach of a suckling calf, but this will be covered more extensively in the section on hard cheeses.

Milk: Cow’s milk was used for this demonstration, bought from a store. Any other type of milk (goat, sheep, etc.) may be used. To get a firmer curd from store bought milk, while not a period technique, you may add a teaspoon of calcium chloride per gallon of milk. This serves to undue some of the homogenization process and allows the fat molecules to cling together more consistently. If using farm fresh milk, higher yields may be expected, but you must ensure the milk has been pasteurized. If it has not, before using, heat the milk to 165 degrees F for 20 minutes, then rapidly cool to refrigerator temperatures and store chilled until ready to use for cheese.

What’s Going On in That Pot, Anyway????

[Note: If you have no interest in the “science bits” about cheesemaking, feel free to skip over this part.]

An old Arabian legend holds that a traveling merchant named Kanana discovered cheese while pausing from his travels in the desert to have a drink of milk from his skin. It was made from a young calf’s stomach and he found to his delight, instead of milk, curds and whey. But what happened to his milk?

Why does your milk wind up turning into cheese? Well, to answer that, we need to understand what milk is made of. Not much, really. Milk is a combination of fats, milk sugars (lactose) and milk proteins (casein) which are what will eventually lump together to form the curds. They are all suspended in a thin liquid which we call “whey”. (Yes, yes… “curds and whey”, just like in the story with the spider. In period, people ate this all the time. I’ve tried it. If you are really brave, you can too.)

Milk left out in the heat will naturally spoil and begin the curdling process, but left to itself this is a wildly unpredictable process which usually just results in a horrible acidic mess and depends heavily on what naturally occurring bacteria are in the area. For hard cheese (below) where a very hard curd is desired, a starter culture of special bacteria is added to the milk before beginning. This process is known as “ripening” the milk. This process also occurs naturally, albeit more slowly and less efficiently, and results in a softer curd. When the bacteria begin their work, the milk sugars (lactose) are converted by the bacteria to lactic acid. This increase in the acidity of the milk is what allows the milk proteins (casein) to form into curds when a coagulating agent (or “curdling agent”, as described above) is introduced to the milk.

Another factor that will determine how solid the curd shall become, aside from the coagulating agent used, is the temperature at which all this occurs. The bacteria do their work best between 75 and 95 degrees F, with the hardest curd being formed if the milk is curdled at about 85 degrees.

Hard Cheese (and no…. I don’t just mean “difficult”)

[Note: The following are not specific enough instructions to go home and make a hard cheese. This is a general overview. If you wish to make one, contact me and I will help you with the specifics and the equipment required, and information on where to get it and what to order.]

As was alluded to above, the initial steps in making a hard cheese are very similar to that of making a soft one. You just have a few more things to add, and will need some extra equipment for the additional steps required. First of all, if you are going to use store bought cow’s milk, you will need some calcium chloride to add to it, if you are to get a suitably firm curd. Any type of milk can be used, however. Cheese can be (and has been) made from the milk of any animal man was ever able to domesticate, up to and including African Cape water buffalo.

You will also need a starter culture. These come in two types which can be ordered from any cheesemaking supply company. (I use New England Cheesemaking Company. Their website may be found at Another source is Lehman’s Non-Electric Catalog at The two types of starter cultures are mesophilic and thermophilic. Which one you use will depend on the temperature you plan on curdling, and the type of cheese you are trying to make. This is added to the milk initially while you are first warming it. This process is known as “ripening the milk.”

Making hard cheese also requires rennet. The most common is animal rennet, which can be had in liquid or tablet form, and is taken from the lining of the fourth stomach of a young calf. For vegetarians, there are also concentrated vegetarian rennets available for order, which are often made from fungal sources. This coagulating agent will be used in place of the lemon juice in the soft cheese example to set the milk into a firm curd.

The initial process is the same as making the bag cheese, but when the curds are drained, you don’t hang them in a bag. You will need to put them into a cheese press. The press simply consists of a cheese mold and some method of applying pressure to it to force the curd down into a much more solid mass, and forcing all of the whey out of it. You can order cheese molds commercially, or they can be made from a coffee can with some holes in it. It’s really not as hard as you think.

After the cheese has been suitably pressed and drained, it is removed from the press and lightly salted, and allowed to air dry for several days, being turned twice a day to ensure even drying. A rind forms on the cheese during this time. The rind on many great cheeses is often the best part, though Americans are not used to seeing it and may not find it palatable.

Once the cheese is dry, it is usually aged, for anywhere from a month to years, depending on the type. Some are left to form an ever harder rind of their own, but many are waxed. You can get cheese wax cheaply, and melt it, and brush it onto your cheese to keep it fresh and free of spoilage while it ages.

Some Notes on the History of Cheese in Period

Many people will find it shocking if you tell them of advanced styles of hard cheesemaking in period. Lots of folks seem to think that in our period, only simple, soft cheese, cottage cheese, or curds and whey were eaten. Not true! The history of hard cheese is ancient, going back to well before 4000 BC. The story of Zoroaster (written in 1000 BC by Pliny) tells us of a man who was said to have lived for 20 years on a single cheese. (Note: it is currently estimated that this cheese must have been a parmesan the size of the rock of Gibralter.)

The Greeks said that cheese was created by Aristaeus, son of Apollo, and many of their references refer to it as “pressed cheese”.

In I Samuel 17:18, David was carrying ten cheeses to the army of Saul when he met Goliath. We can only speculate that if he’d simply given the giant a couple of them, he’d likely have been on his way with much less fuss and bother.

A monk’s chronicle from 1070 tells us that Charlemagne was reported to have been very fond of Roquefort and ordered it from great distances away.

The Island of Delos had a hard cheese on face of one of their coins.

Cheshire is one of the oldest English cheeses and it can be dated back to Roman Britain and is mentioned by name in the Domesday Book of 1086

We have already covered a large list of period coagulating agents used in cheesemaking. More can be found in the references given at the end of this paper. As to equipment, for the draining of cheese, a very period method was the wicker type basket mentioned in the soft cheese section. This is referred to many literary examples, including Homer’s tale The Odyssey. The wicker baskets used for draining curds by Polyphemus (the Cyclops) were known as “formos” to the Greeks, which became the word “forma” in Latin, and gave rise to the Italian word for cheese, “formaggio” as well as the Old French “formage” which became “fromage”.

Cheese was also pressed in molds during our period, and they came in a variety of styles. Digs in Great Britain have turned up iron rounds with many holes in them which were used for this purpose. Even older still were ceramic pottery molds of similar style. The “followers” (which are the pieces that fit into the mold on top of the cheese to press it down) were referred to as “flowers” in those times. Many of these have been recovered as well. Many types of presses were used to apply pressure to the cheese, but simple weights on the press were the most common. Bricks were an obvious choice, and while not in our period, “brick cheese” got it’s name from just such a system, where brick molds were made to form and press the cheese, and the bricks themselves were used as weights to drive the follower down.

It may be of interest to note that several varieties of hard cheeses have ancient lineages. Here is a short list of some of the older ones, along with the earliest references to them which have been found thus far in primary resources:

Cheese Variety Year(AD)

-------------- --------

Gorgonzola 879

Roquefort 1070

Cheshire 1086

Grana 1200

Cheddar 1500

Parmesan 1579

Gouda 1697

Gloucester 1697

Stilton 1785

Camembert 1791

Reference material used in this paper, along with other sources where you can find more information on the history of cheesemaking in our period:

The Complete Book of Cheese. Bob Brown. Gramercy. Library of Congress #55-11956

Summa Lacticiniorum, by Pantaleo de Confluentia, Turin, 1477.

Formaggi del Medioevo, by Irma Naso, Torino Publishing, 1990

The Cheese and Buttermaker’s Handbook: a practical treatise on the arts of cheese and butter making, by J.B. Harris, published Glasgow by Dunn & Wright, 1885.

The Story of Cheese-making in Britain, by Val Cheke, published London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959.

The Cheese Book by Vivienne Marquis and Patricia Haskell. Published: Simon and Schuster. 1964.

"Cheesemaking in Scotland – a History" by John H Smith. ISBN 0-9525323-0-1

The History of Cheese. (online resource) British Dairy Council:

The Cheese Companion, by Judy Ridgway, published 1999, Quintet Publishing Co.

History of Cheese Making in the Moorlands, Alan Salt, London, 1991.

"The Cheese Book," by Richard Widcome. Published: Chartwell Books (Seacaucus, NJ), 1978.

Production of soft cheese, by J.H. Galloway, published in The Society of Dairy Technology. 48 (2); 36-43.

The making of farmstead goat cheeses. By J.C. Le-Jaouen, published 1990. Cheesemaker's Journal. 206.


This article is by Lord Jakys the Chesemonger

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