How To Begin At Scribal Arts

Someone asked me what he absolutely needed to know in order to begin painting award scrolls. I tried to explain for a while, but he kept shaking his head. I wasn’t answering the right questions. But eventually we worked through what he was really asking. What he wanted was a Complete Newbie Kit And Guide, and I hope that this will serve.

His questions are mostly answered in the Caid Scribal Handbook, but here are some slightly more (I hope) brief explanations. I’ve tried to answer him on his level, but also others who may know a bit more or less than he does. Let me know, readers, if I can add more to this.

Is there some sort of guide book where I can look up all my questions?

Yes, and I love that this was your very first question! The Caid Scribal Handbook right here. It’s currently under revision, so it might be smart to check with the handbook each time you get ready to create or decorate a new scribal work. Also useful to remind yourself of little details here and there, until you get very used to doing things.

What do scribes do?

In the SCA, most people use the word “scribe” to indicate absolutely everyone who has anything to do with anything that appears on the page: layout, painting, gilding, words, seals. In period, however, these tasks are shared among various types of people:

  • Scribe, scrivener, calligrapher: The people who put the words on the page.
  • Painter, limner: The people who put the pictures on the page.
  • Gilder, illuminator: The people who put the shiny gold, silver, or other metallic leaf on the page.

And then, of course, there are the seals. Seals were there to make it impossible to forge or alter a king’s or other noble’s signature on a page. It was sort of like a medieval equivalent of “I’ll need two forms of ID, please.”

In period, if someone was going to give a written commendation, citation, an elevation in status, a land grant, et cetera, the person who was giving the thing would be the one who would put his seal on it. That person would melt the wax, let it drip onto the page, and then press their signet ring (or some other object) into the wax to impress upon it an image. Often, the page was folded up so that the bottom was directly under the final words of the document; that way no one could come and add more text to the document later on.

In the SCA, the seal is generally put onto the page by the head of their kingdom’s scribal college, while the royals simply read it over and sign the page. Most scrolls are not folded and sealed; the seal is instead a sign that the document is “official” now. Some kingdoms use an inked stamp instead of a wax seal.

What does it look like on the page when a scribe is done doing their part of a scroll?

There’ll be words when the scribe is finished. You may or may not be able to read them. They might not be in a language you understand, or they might be done in a hand (it’s like a font, but for scribes instead of computers) that is harder to read. If the text is hard to read, the scribe will probably have written on the back, or on a separate page, what it says in clearer print.

Sometimes the page will also have guide lines drawn on it. These may be in very light pencil (to be erased later), ink (to be left on the page), or even pressed or cut into the page. They’re just there to show the scribe where to write. If they’ve left them in place, ask them if they want it to remain on the finished work, or if they’d like to erase it before handing over the scroll to you, the painter. Many book pages and other period documents had the guide lines left on them because their pencils used real lead or silver, not the carbon graphite that’s in modern pencils, and those just don’t erase all that well. Some scribes prefer to leave the scroll looking period; others want to leave a clean page, so they’ll erase the marks.

The page will also usually have very lightly-drawn boxes on it. They’re lightly drawn so that they can be erased later by the painter. The boxes are often labeled with exactly what they’re meant to hold on the finished scroll, for the sake of the artist who will fill them with beauty: “Capital letter A.” “Floral stuff here.” “Bar with whitework.” “Kingdom seal.” “Crescent Herald’s seal.” “Royal signatures.” Artists shouldn’t put any decoration into areas marked as being for signatures or seals, but everywhere else is fair game.

What does the painter do? What does the gilder do?

A painter, put very simply, paints. This can be as little or as much work as the painter, scribe, and scroll recipient want it to be. At the bare minimum, there are awards that only require the award heraldry and/or the recipient’s heraldic device to appear on the scroll. (There are also awards that don’t require any heraldry or art at all, but you won’t be given those to paint, of course.) At maximum, you can create a masterwork that will wow everyone around you, and probably wind up in a museum in a couple hundred years.

Though the general SCA term for both painting and gilding is “illumination,” that word actually refers solely to putting gilding — metallic leaf — onto a page. So called because it reflects light, causing figures to appear to glow or shine with their own light. It’s very effective as a way to emphasize the holiness in a being, an object, or a word, as well as to indicate wealth or status of a depicted figure. This should be done after the words are on the page, but before the paint, because it sticks ferociously to paint.

Words are required on all scrolls, whereas images are not necessary on many, and are minimally necessary on others. That might make it sound like scribes are the most important people in the College of Scribes. Hey, even the name suggests this. But it’s just not so. Part of what draws people into the SCA is the pageantry of it all. They love to see banners floating on the breezes, high overhead. They want to see armor glinting in the sunlight. They want to see ladies and lords walking each other onto the list field to be presented to Their Majesties, with great ceremony, before the start of each fight. And they want, when someone has merited an award, to see that award looking beautiful. That’s where painters and gilders come in.

What does a completed scroll look like?

I’m so glad you asked! Here’s a link not only to a gallery of completed works, but also to a lot more information (including explanations and answers not found on this blog). In fact, it’s probably a better resource than this, because what I’m putting here is what’s there. But this way, my friend will remember how to find the info. 😉

What are the rules for scrolls of various types?

The different rules are covered in the Caid Scribal Handbook, and you can find them if you scroll down to Rules for Scrolls. Most scrolls require the heraldry of the award begin given, either in image form or in image and also text. If you put the text, you must put the image; if you put the image, text may or may not be required.

Some scrolls also must bear the heraldic device of the award recipient. The very basic rules about this:

  • Whenever heraldry is described in the wording of a scroll, there must be a picture of that heraldry; and
  • Each time an award recipient’s rank is raised, their heraldry must be included.

Let me explain that a bit. These are all of the awards used in Caid, as well as images of their heraldry. Some are called non-armigerous. This means that if a person earns them, they remain just as they were before, whatever their rank. A person with no title, who has managed to be given every single non-armigerous award in Caid, still doesn’t get called Lady Mary Fancy-Pants or Lord John Pretty-Face. They just remain Mary or John. (This doesn’t generally happen, however, because if a person has earned that many awards, surely the king and queen will also feel they’ve earned an Award of Arms.)

Some other awards, on the other hand, do bestow rank. These are called armigerous awards (lowest rank), grant-level awards (medium level rank), and patent-level awards (highest rank). The first award that a person receives at each level is the award that bestows their rank.

For instance: If you’ve received your Award of Arms, followed by your Argent Arrow, the Award of Arms is what gives you rank and a title, so that award scroll must have your arms emblazoned (drawn or painted) on it, as well as have the blazon (the words that describe the arms). Your Argent Arrow isn’t required to have your arms on it, but if the scribe does choose to mention them, you’ll need to emblazon it on the document. This will be entirely the scribe’s responsibility to ensure that they mention it when required, and if they mention it, to leave you space to put the image of the recipient’s shield.

Note, there is no Society-wide rule on whether a grant-level award bestows an additional title upon the recipient. Some kingdoms do have it as kingdom law; others have it as kingdom custom, so it’s optional. Caid has it as a custom that grant-level award recipients are usually called The Honorable Lord/Lady So-and-so, and when referring to them by title but not name, one would say “your/her ladyship” or “your/his lordship.” (Some people will let folks know that this has happened for them by jokingly announcing, “I’m a ship!” or “I’ve joined the Caidan Navy!”)

What do the shields look like? Can I do them in any shape I want?

Yes. There is a standard shape of shield that is most commonly used in the SCA. It’s pictured in the Rules for Scrolls, along with directions for producing it perfectly every time. There are also other shapes that were used historically. If you know the time and place that your scroll recipient likes to portray, you might look up what shield shape was in use then, and use that one on their scroll instead for an extra touch of personalization. It would be a nice surprise for them.

What are the texts for scrolls of various types?

Caid Scroll Texts — Some of the details of the wording may be adjusted and customized. Painters can possibly get by without knowing all of this information, but knowing it may help you understand better the nuances of the requirements and the details that might need to be put into images.

What types of paint and other materials should I use?

The answer to this and other burning questions may be found in the Advice section of the Caidan Scribal Handbook.  I’ve got a few paint palettes with some of the more common colors used in period. They’re modern paints in terms of chemical construction, but the colors were easy to achieve in period, and you’ll be able to get at least one or two scrolls done (or a few practice pieces, which is a good idea!) before you need any of them to be refilled.

The handbook at the moment doesn’t contain a list of specific colors that were achievable in period, however. I urge you to look down this page at the Period pigments section. In the meantime, the period colors that I’ve put into the Gyldenholt gift palettes are:

Yellow Ochre
Naples Yellow
Naples Yellow Deep
Metal Oxide (copper, magnesium — any metal, coroded, that produces a green effect)
Burnt Sienna
Burnt Umber
Lamp Black (bone black, jet black, any black will do)
White (zinc white, Chinese white, any white will do)
Violet (not a period color, but can be achieved by mixing period colors, and purple is often used in SCA devices)

If you have all of the above colors, you can mix just about any other color you’ll need from them. If you have a larger paint palette with space for more colors, maybe add red ochre, raw sienna, Tyrian purple (which is a brilliant shade of hot magenta-pink!), and whatever else might be mentioned on the Period Pigments link below, provided it’s within the correct time range for the scroll(s) you want to make.

Don’t feel you must restrict your color usage to only those available in period. There are many, many painters in the SCA who don’t. My goal in giving you the above list is to give you the information to make the informed choice of what paints to use, and when and why to use them. Make decisions you’ll be happy with.

Does the scroll recipient know what they’re getting?

Yes and no.

Many kingdoms have a policy that if someone is getting an award, they get their scroll right when the award is announced. The whole thing is a big surprise for them, and it’s often a very moving experience for everyone around them as well. This works because they have cadres of accomplished, dedicated scribes who volunteer much in the way of time and resources, making sure that there’s never a time when there’s an award given without the recipient walking away with scroll in hand.

Caid has a smaller number of active scribes, relative to the population of the kingdom, than most other kingdoms. In order to make certain we use our energies in the best way for us all, we’ve instituted a policy that if a person wants a scroll, they need to request one. They get their award in court, and instead of being handed the scroll to go with it, they get an award certificate. Someone did design it and draw the original, but the copy they receive is printed on a computer, with their name added later, and usually without color (unless the person in charge of printing that day happens to have a color printer). For some folks, this is quite enough. They’re so flattered to be called up in court and recognized for their accomplishments that the idea of a scroll is a mere afterthought.

If they do want a scroll, they will contact the College of Scribes and request that someone be assigned to make it; or they’ll ask a friend who’s a scribe to do it for them. Therefore, they do know they’re getting a scroll. But they won’t know how the scroll will look unless the person making the scroll talks it over with them. That’s optional. Some recipients prefer a beautiful surprise when the scrolls are presented in a royal court at a future event. Some scribes prefer surprises, too, and might not mention to their recipient that they’ve been assigned the scroll, so that they can make what their hearts lead them to make.

Control of that decision lies with the scribe and the painter. But do give it some serious thought. If you know the person loves a surprise and isn’t all that picky about the details, run with what you’re inspired to make. If you know that person doesn’t handle surprises well, or might be picky about certain details, it’s probably a good idea to consult with them. If you don’t know the person, maybe ask around to see if anyone knows how they might feel.

Or, if you don’t mind blowing the surprise just a little bit, you could always ask them. “I’ve been assigned to do your <X> scroll. Would you like to have some input on how it looks, or would you like to be surprised?” This may be the safest thing. If they have tastes that you can’t meet — maybe they want a style of calligraphy that your scribe isn’t good at, or a style of painting that you don’t feel confident you can do well — it may be better to say so, and help them find another artist and/or scribe so they can have pure delight in the final results.

What else do scribes make in the SCA?

Charters for new SCA branches (shires, baronies, principalities, kingdoms, and other branch types)
Thank-you letters for royals/barons/baronesses to send
In-persona letters written
Invitations to extra-special events or occasions
In-persona wedding contracts
Indentures and written ceremonies (Laurels taking on apprentices, Pelicans taking on protégés, knights taking on squires)
Display documents for demonstrations
Copies of period artwork (not forgeries – that would be illegal)
Artwork in period styles
Period playing cards
Display menus for feasts
Signage for displays and competitions
Anything else you can think of!

What other resources are there?

Caid Scribal Handbook: Where most of the above questions are answered. At the time I’m writing this blog post, the handbook is under revision, and I’m not certain when the revisions will be complete and published. However, new information will appear herein, at some point, so this is a good go-to spot for checking up on whatever the current information is.

How to create wax seals:
The imperfect treaty of making wax seals for documents, by Haakon Pikinokka mka. Harri Ryynänen of barony of Aarnimetsä in the SCA Kingdom of Drachenwald, is the best tutorial I have ever found. It is thorough, clear, and the images are very helpful.

Custom guidelines to print: 

Both of these are good, if you find you need guidelines printed so you can trace them, instead of making your own. Painters don’t usually need them as close to perfectly-spaced as scribes do, but should you decide to scribe as well, here’s where to get some easy-to-produce lines.

Period pigments: 
This one is an interactive timeline showing when various pigments appeared on the historical stage, where, what colors they were (various screens’ color accuracy may affect what you see, however), when/if they stopped being used… The site is completely brilliant. Just go, you’ll have fun.

Other kingdoms’ scribal handbooks:
(Note: You may have to scroll down, follow links, et cetera. Some kingdoms have entire scribal community pages; others have just a handbook for scribes.)
An Tir
Gleann Abhann – I’m not finding anything other than a contact for the Topaz Herald, who’s apparently in charge of scribes. No handbook, no scriptorium/guild info… Can anyone help?
Meridies – Or possibly this link; one says 2014, and one just says “current” with no date.

There should be more of these eventually.
Bygone Arts playlist: A series of 9 videos on creating an award scroll, including setting up the page, scribing the text, gold leafing the illuminated bits, painting the decorated bits.