A ‘Galling’ Experience – Making Medieval Ink


Whilst walking the dog this morning, I was looking at how the leaves were alrteady changing colour and falling to the ground. I happened to look at a small oak and, as well as the leaves, noted something else – some round brown woody looking things on some of the branches. They were oak galls and I must admit at first I just felt pleased to have sen and identified them and walked on. But as I walked, a little memory kept nagging at me – that oak galls were once used to make ink.

An oak gall – a deformation, mainly found on oaks which is created by the gall wasp (Cynipoidera) when it lays its eggs on the tree. The larve develop inside the gall and feed off it, eventually piercing a hole through its shell to escape.

So in the end I doubled back on myself and went back to the tree. I managed to collect four galls and returned home with my trasures. I then went online to look up medieval ink recipes thinking that maybe all I had to do was boil them up or something. Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that – I also need some iron sulphate and gum arabic for the most basic form of ink. However, it has stirred the ambition in me to get the extra ingredients (and some more oak galls) and try to make some – so watch this space in future for the results. Until then I shall leave you with this image from the National Archives of a manuscript containing an ancient recipe for ink (not one I shall be following I am quick to add).

Some words are no longer easily readable and the suggested transcription for those words is in parentheses ().

To make ink. Take (oil)
and copperas and or vitriol (quarter)
and gum of (clyche) a quarter
or half quarter and a half
quarter of gall more and
break the gall a 2 or a 3
and put them together every
the one in a pot and stir it
often and within
2 weeks after you (mol)
write the (wyr)
and if you have a quarter of
clvyche take a quarter of
water if half a quarter
of cliyche then take half
a quarter of water.

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3 Responses to A ‘Galling’ Experience – Making Medieval Ink

  1. Gabriele C. says:

    That sounds like a fun experiment to do.

  2. Doc says:

    Cool project. I vaguely remember something about oak-gall ink being acidic or turning acidic over time, and therefore corroding the paper or vellum. I'll see if I can find any references for you.

    As for ink recipes, I have this one from the commonplace book of Countess Katherine Seymour Hertford (Lady Katherine Grey), ca. 1567:

    To make principall Inke

    Take a

  3. Lady D. says:

    Gabriele: Yes, that’s what I thought too. I may not think it though when my kitchen is splattered in the stuff!!!

    Thanks Doc – I still need to get a few more galls (easier said than done so far) and some iron sulphate. Yes, the ink can become corosive over time – by all accounts some more than others, depending on the recipe used.

    By the way, I just re-read the post and really

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