A Scribe's Writing Slope

Marko Evanovich Panfilov
Barony of Dragonsspine, Kingdom of the Outlands
September 28th, A.S. 37 (2002)


This scribe's box is based upon a writing slope from England, 1670 (Figure 1).  Although this example is out of period, such writing slopes were known to have been used in the Middle Ages (see Figure 2), but there are few surviving examples.  

  Writing slopes were used in Medieval time by monks and scholars.  When using a quill pen, or even when using a more modern metal nib dip pen, the slope of the surface decreases the angle of the pen, allowing the ink to run more slowly.  Calligraphy performed on a flat horizontal surface is much more likely to splotch.  Portable writing slopes were used both for writing and for transporting supplies such as pen and ink.
Figure 1: Writing Slope from England, 1670.

In addition to providing a sloped surface for calligraphy, the box in this project is designed to hold two divided plastic containers that hold scribal supplies.  A simple six board construction technique is used, which dates to the 9th century.  A piece of leather is used as a simple handle.  Celtic knotwork has been carved on the front surface.  This was my first woodworking project in the SCA and was constructed in November A.S. 36 (2001) and carved in May, A.S. 37 (2002).

  While the construction techniques used in making this box date back as far as the ninth century, writing slopes such as this probably did not exist that early.  In the early Middle Ages, monks created manuscripts in their convents and would have used fixed tables with sloped surfaces.  Portable writing surfaces would not have been used until later in the Middle Ages when calligraphy and illumination of documents became more common and widespread.  For example, a painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio of St Jerome in his Study from 1480 shows him using a portable writing slope.
Figure 2: St. Jerome using a writing slope for a bible translation.  Part of a painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1480.


Except for the small brass hinges, no other metal is used in the construction of the box.  Hinges would have been used in period, but they would have been made of iron rather than brass.  Pegs were often used in place of nails.  Larger boxes and chests were reinforced with metal straps, but since modern glues provide strong joints, metal straps were not needed for a box of this size.

For cost considerations, pine was used instead of oak or maple.  Oak was commonly used for many types of boxes, chests, and furniture in the Middle Ages.  For applications such as a writing slope, maple could also be used.  Modern pine is softer than oak or maple, easier to work with, and very inexpensive.

  To construct the box, pine boards were cut to the needed length and width.  Boards were then held together and a hole for the dowel was drilled into both pieces.  Glue was added to the edge of the boards and the dowel, and the dowel was driven into the hole using a mallet.  Modern power tools were used to cut and sand the pine boards.  In the Middle Ages, planes of various sizes would have been used to smooth the boards and form the joints.  Instead of a power drill for the dowel holes, a brace and bit hand drill would have been used.
Figure 3: A brace and bit drill from the 1830's.  Few tools have survived from the Middle Ages.

The Celtic knotwork was laid out using the method described in the Known World Handbook.  Using this method, the dots used in the layout end up being carved out.  Carving was done with a power Dremel tool, rather than the hand chip-carving that was done in the Middle Ages.  The rough sections of the carving darken when stain is applied, providing a nice contrast to the design.  The knotwork was outlined using a permanent black marker to further highlight the design, rather than painting the design as was common in period.

Figure 4. Carved knotwork on box. Figure 5. A 6-board oak chest from England, approx. 1500, exhibiting extensive chip carving.

The box was stained using a brown pigment mixed in water.  Similar stains were used in period, either dissolved in water or oil, although the pigments used were often hazardous.  A thin coat of paste wax was applied to protect the final finish.  Recipes for varnish date back to the Middle Ages, and beeswax could have also been rubbed over the box to protect it.  

For the clasp, a simple piece of leather lace is wrapped around a wooden button.  Leather lace is also sewn to a piece of scrap leather to form a handle for the box.  A sewing machine was used in place of hand sewing.


The objective of this project was to provide a period covering for mundane storage containers.  Functionality and low-cost were the primary considerations.  Given how useful this box has been at each and every event, it certainly succeeded as a functional design.  With better materials, and more time, a more period oak box could have been made with iron hinges and hand carved designs.  But for everyday use, this is an excellent beginning woodworking project.


Diehl, Daniel, and Donnelly, Mark, Medieval Furniture, 1999 Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. 
Beware of the text and reproductions used in this volume.  There are no references and details are speculative.  However, some pictures of surviving furniture of the Middle Ages are useful.
Master Dafydd ap Gwystl, The Medieval Chest, from University of Atlantia A.S. 29.  http://www.greydragon.org/library/chests.html.
Excellent overview of box and chest making through the Middle Ages.  Well documented with references and excellent pictures of surviving examples.
Web Gallery of Art, http://gallery.euroweb.hu/art/g/ghirland/domenico/3fresco/1jerome.jpg
Painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio of St Jerome in his Study
Tracy, Charles, English Medieval Furniture and Woodwork, 1988 Victoria and Alberts Museum.
A catalog of the furniture and woodworking collection from the Victoria and Alberts Museum.
Arwidsson, Greta Berg, Gosta Berg, The Meastermyr Find: A Viking Age Tool Chest, Reprinted 1999, Larson Publishing Company, Compoc, CA
A comprehensive description of an 11th century tool chest that was found in Sweden.  Describes several woodworking tools including saws, shell bits, and chisels.  A sketch from the book can be found at: http://www.keenjunk.com/sketchbk/bb80302.htm
Chinnery, Victor, OAK FURNITURE: The British Tradition, 1979 The Antique Collector's Club, Suffolk, England
One of the best sources for 16th century furniture design and construction.
Cennini, Cennino d'Adrea, The Craftsman's Handbook "Il Libro dell' Arte", 1966, Dover Publications, New York. (Translated by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr.)
Translation of a book written by a 15th century painter.  Contains sections on period varnishes and a description of finishing caskets and chests.