As a scribe we have a lot of tools and materials that are available to us to help make our art. Some tools materials are well known such as the pen and ink, some are not so well known such as pergamenata or chalk and some are known but wrongly such as gum sandarac. Scribal Tools and Materials will be an ongoing series that I will be doing to help my fellow scribes to learn more about what is out there.
Did medieval scribes really use sand to dry the ink?
Myth, But Rooted in Truth.
Who hasn’t read in a fictional book where a character pens something and then sprinkles sand on the ink to help make it dry faster? I know I certainly have read it many times in various fiction books. Try it sometime.When we stop and think about it we shouldn’t be surprised by that this just doesn’t work. Think about sand. It is tiny shards of stone and shells. You can use water to help shape sand into some wonderful sculptures but the sand doesn’t help anything dry. And even if it did work, the sand would be trapped in place by the ink forever creating letter shaped sandpaper. If the sand did come out, then the remaining ink would show missing or discolored spots. In short, when we think this through, putting sand on your wet ink to help it dry faster, is just a really bad idea!
So, where does it come from? A very useful material to scribes called Gum Sandarac. Gum Sandarac is the sap from an evergreen tree commonly known as Arar, Araar or Sictus Tree. It can be made into a varnish, incense and for use in scribal arts. Used correctly in scribal arts you take the powdered gum sandarac in a small linen bag and tap the bag on the writing surface in a tap and swipe motion. Then you turn the writing surface on its edge. You then tap the back of the writing surface knocking loose extra gum Sandarac and any larger particles. Your writing surface has now been prepared to take calligraphy ink. The Sandarac helps stop the ink from spidering and it helps create those hair thin lines.
Sandarac is a pouncing agent so when you hear, “You should pounce your page,” powdered Gum Sandarac is what is being talked about much of the time. Sandarac is sometimes mixed with alum or chalk which are whitening agents.
Okay so how did we get from all of that to thinking that we used sand to dry the ink?
Even in the pre-1600 world gum sandarac was called gomme sandarach or some variation. Like many things you use or reference often a short hand usage came about. Sandarac was just shortened to “sand.” Sometimes instead of using a linen bag a metal canister with holes perforating the top was used called a sander. By the time the Victorians came to be, they had lost the art of broad tipped pen usage for the most part. It was told to me that they would use a fine tipped pen and “color in,” the shape created in a single stroke by a broad tipped pen. They also apparently had lost the art of using gum sandarac. And like many things the Victorians did, when they didn’t know, they made it up and wrote very authoritatively how right they were to be doing it the wrong way. In this case interpreting “sand” and “sander” as actual real sand and not gum sandarac. While this may be understandable as a mis-understanding, it is still wrong.
And so we have a myth rooted in the truth.
Is it possible that other things were used that weren’t actually sand? Yes. But sand itself is still a myth as far as my research has shown.
I hope this foray into scribal materials has increased your understanding of a very useful material used by scribes in the Middle Ages and is just as useful today.
ADDENDUM February 1, 2016:
Since having written this I have had several conversations regarding “sand” to dry the ink. It seems there were materials that included ground ash among other things that may have been used. I haven’t found resources on this. Still, it wasn’t sand. I of course welcome reference citations showing materials that may have been used to help dry the ink. Thus far none have been forthcoming but I would love to see them.