Starting a Bifolium

What is a bifolium you ask? The British Library online glossary defines a bifolium as” A sheet of writing support material (generally PARCHMENT during the Middle Ages) folded in half to produce two leaves (i.e., four pages).” Take any single piece of paper, napkin etc and fold it in half. Congratulations you have a bifolium. The making of a bifolium is an exercise in part of codicology, the study of a the book as a physical object.

But is that all there is to it? After all if that is all there was to it, why would folding a piece of paper be worthy of a blog entry. That is kind of boring isn’t it? If that is all I was doing, it would in fact be entirely boring and everyday. But this is just the start.

I am making my bifolium from parchment in this series of blog posts. I will be giving a step by step guide showing the process of going from a piece of parchment to laying out the writing blocks to a written upon finished bifolium.

Today’s post shows the beginning of that process.

The future bifolium. Parchment does tend to curl.

If you store your parchment flat it tends to not curl. If you store it rolled up, it will try to retain that shape and be curled.

The “inside” of the curl

Well, if your parchment is curled, then by all means put it to your advantage. I will fold this in the direction of the curl. Why fight it?

Parchment does not simply fold. It is far too robust for a simple folding like a sheet of paper. This is manuscript quality parchment meaning it is very thin and very smooth. The tool for the job for folding parchment is called a “bone folder”.

Bone Folder

In today’s world not all bone folders are made from actual bone. Today they are often made from plastic. This one is a plastic one. Though people who work with bone have been initially fooled by it until they very closely inspected it. If you don’t have a purpose made bone folder, a stiff solid straight edged implement would work.

My bone folder is about 20cm in length
And 2.2cm in width

A bone folder is used to create the crease at the middle of the bifolium. The inside of the crease in codicology is known as “the gutter”. Unfortunately my set up did not allow me to take pictures of using the bone folder to form the crease. Here is a paper arts video that gives a very modern but very accurate description of how to use a bone folder. The technique hasn’t changed in more than a millennium.

Once folded I trimmed the edges. Pre-1600 this would have been done with a square and a sharp knife of razor. I used a much more modern tool.

My Trimmer.

I have had this trimmer for more than a decade. It has two different depth “knives”. One is for scoring supports and the other is for cutting it. The orange plastic piece swings out to provide an elongated straight edge to ensure larger pieces are cut square. Cutting square is cutting at exactly 90 degree angles at the corners.

So did I make a bifolium?

Folded bifolium

There it is trimmed up nice if not perfectly.

Bifolium edge toward viewer
Bifolium held open. You can see the crease scoring.

That looks pretty small Ian. How big is it?

Height is 103mm about 4 1/16″
Folium (page) width is 74mm about 2 7/8″ wide.

Ian that is tiny. Prayer books parchment are often around 140mm x 90mm about 5 1/2″ x 3 1/2″. This is just a bit smaller than that. There are many examples of miniature books much smaller than this. The Lilly Library has over 6,000 medieval miniature books. This is the largest known collection of miniature books in the world. A pre-19th century book is typically considered miniature if it is under 4″ in its height and width. This is pretty close to that.

Bone folder next to bifolium

So what is left to do? A lot.

1 – As you can see the parchment is still curled a bit. I will be flattening that by putting clean flat heavy object on it while I go about my non-scribal life.

2 – I need to measure out the writing block. I plan to use the Golden Ratio to do this. I could do this directly on the bifolium. Instead I’m going to use a mock up and then transfer the measurements of the writing block over to the bifolium.

3 – Plan out what I want to write on the bifolium. Including laying out the writing block.

4 – I want to make a brazilwood lining ink. There is a medieval recipe I haven’t made yet that include alum, brazilwood and egg whites. That should prove interesting.

5 – Pre-line the writing blaock.

5 – Gilding.

6 – Prep the writing area and writing tools and materials including but not limited to a) Make or trim quill pens. b) Make or use current oak gall ink. c) Pounce the writing block

7 – Write the calligraphy.

8 – Add any decoration or embellishments.

Yes, that means there will be more posts showing the progress being made on this project.


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