This article began life as an owner's manual for the diptychs, or waxed writing tablets, made and sold by Greg Priest-Dorman. Then in 1992 it was published in two sections, one on construction and one on history, in the annual arts and sciences supplement to Pikestaff, the newsletter of the East Kingdom, Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc. Some minor additions and formatting changes accompanied the translation into HTML. The authors thank Joshua Mittleman, whose service as amanuensis was integral to the original article on construction and who kindly granted permission to post this document.
This document is provided as is without any express or implied warranties. While every effort has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information contained, the author assumes no responsibility for errors or omissions, or for damages resulting from the use of the information contained herein.
Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.
Copyright © 1991, 1999 Greg Priest-Dorman and Carolyn Priest-Dorman
The diptych, or waxed tablet, was an indispensible tool of the Western scholar for thousands of years. At its simplest, a waxed tablet is a piece of wood with a wax-filled recess; using a metal-tipped implement, one writes on the tablet by scratching the surface of the wax, which is darkened for greater contrast. In effect, it is a renewable scratch pad.
Tablets can be seen on red- and black-figure Attic vases from the Classical period in Greece, and their use as everyday writing implements was continuous all over Europe until at least the late fifteenth century. The waxed tablet was used in correspondence, in teaching, as official or legal records, as a workspace for drafting speeches or other writings, as a platform for working mathematical proofs, and no doubt for all sorts of more ephemeral purposes. Examples exist of wax tablets executed in ivory, whalebone, and many types of wood, in sizes ranging from less than 2"x3" (Hughes 259) to the size of a modern notebook. In Byzantium, ivory tablets were often used as official gifts or presentations; some survive in church collections due to their beautiful ornamentation.
Chapter 55 of the Rule of Saint Benedict, dating to the sixth century C.E., calls the tablet and its stylus a necessary part of the monastic life, saying "et ut hoc vitium peculiaris radicitus amputetur, dentur al abbate omnia quae sunt necessaria, id est cuculla, tunica, pedules, caligas, bracile, cultellum, graphium, acum, mappula, tabulas...." ["In order that this vice of private ownership may be completely uprooted, the abbot is to provide all things necessary: that is, cowl, tunic, sandals, shoes, belt, knife, stylus, needle, handkerchief and writing tablets...." (Fry 110-115) Aldhelm even made a riddle about wax tablets, or, as he called them, pugillares, in the late seventh century:
Of honey-laden bees I first was born, But in the forest grew my outer coat; My shoes from tough hides came. An iron point In artful windings cuts a fair design, And leaves long, twisted furrows, like a plow.... (Riddle 32: Pitman 18-19)
Hughes mentions one "Baldric, abbot of Bourgueil, 1107," who wrote that he used green wax in his tablet "for pleasantness to the eyes." (Hughes 264). It is possible to create greenish wax by adding quantities of carbon to the beeswax which are insufficient to color it black but which will still impart some color to the mixture. In the thirteenth century the De Proprietatibus Rerum of Bartholomaeus Anglicus describes two-sided tablets with black, green, or red wax. Anglicus also says that they are best made with hard, smooth wood (Seymour 1056, Capitulum clxii).
The goods of a traveling Provençal merchant named Peire Cambafort, suspected of tax evasion, were seized in 1343 at Aix; they contained, among many other interesting items, "1 petty dozen writing tablets [pugillaria]" he had purchased in Paris (Lopez and Raymond 91). A guild of tabletiers (makers of waxed tablets) flourished in Paris by the thirteenth century. Their well-developed regulations concerning apprenticing and production were chronicled by Étienne Boileau in his Livre des Métiers (Depping 171-174, Titre LXVIII).
From the fourteenth century comes the passage from the Somonour's Tale in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:
His felawe hadde a staf tipped with horn, A peyre of tables al of yvory, And a poyntel polysshed fetisly, And wroot the names alwey, as he stood, Of alle folk that yaf hem any good,.... And whan that he was out atte dore, anon He planed awey the names everichon That he biforn had writen in his tables.... (Lines 1740-1759: Pratt 297f)
Many manuscript illuminations in the Insular, Carolingian, and Winchester styles depict the use of waxed tablets. Likenesses of the gospel saints frequently show a saint writing in a book or, occasionally, a tablet. In later period, a painting by Jacopo de'Barbari dated to around 1494 depicts Fra Luca Pacioli working out a problem from an open printed copy of Euclid's Elements onto a very large waxed tablet (Levinson 245-247)
A whalebone tablet found at Blythburgh in England dates to the seventh or eighth century. It was originally decorated with bronze ornamental fittings (MacGregor 124). A photo of this piece can also be seen on page 31 of Backhouse, along with several styli.
A two-sided waxed tablet found in Bergen, Norway, dates to about 1190. This particular tablet was carved with a "secret message" underneath the wax filling, over which another message was inscribed. Plate 26 of Elliot has photos of both sides of this tablet (Elliot 93 and plate facing 101).
A recently discovered tablet from fourteenth-century York still bears writing on its surfaces: the text is a Middle English poem (Gaimster et al. 221).
Styli for writing on the waxed tablet have been found at archaeological sites all over Europe, from the British Isles to Sweden to the Mediterranean. Like waxed tablets, they date back at least as far as the Classical Greek period, and they are made of a variety of materials: bronze and iron-tipped bone are the most common. Sometimes there is confusion as to whether a particular artifact was a stylus or a pin.
The construction of waxed tablets involves three steps: preparing the wooden tablets, preparing and pouring the wax, and constructing a stylus. Each step is described below in a simplified form. All the materials and tools are readily available.
Safety: To do this thing you need to work with sharp tools and hot wax. If you don't know how to use one of the tools, find out! For the wood tools, check any good introductory carpentry book or home repair book; for the chisel, check the window or door fitting sections. For the wax, be careful--it can burn you badly.
Measurements: Throughout these instructions I will be giving you measurements. Except for the temperature of the wax, they are there only for those of you who are more comfortable having them; they are only suggestions and are not written in stone, just in wax. Play and experiment. In general, period tablets are small with multiple plates, but I recommend that you start with a two-plate tablet. You can always add more later.
Using the straight edge or T-square, mark 1/2" in from one of the long sides of the slab and 3/8" in from the other three sides (see Figure 1, below). Use the straight-edge as a guide and cut on these marks. Cut smoothly; it's better to go over the line several times and keep it straight and even then to go fast and slip.
Now that you have cut the edge, you can begin to chisel. Set up a good, hard edge to chisel against (see Figure 2, below). Chisel with the grain. Remove about 1/8" of the wood. Clean up the edges and corners. Try to get the bottom level, but do not smooth the bottom with anything other than the chisel. If you make it too smooth the wax won't stick.
Mark and drill the holes as shown. Drill one tablet first, then place both carved out sides together and mark the other tablet for drilling. This way your holes will line up.
If you are making a double-sided plate, turn it over, mark and chisel the the second side. Make sure you keep the same edge as the wide edge and be careful not to cut to deeply with the chisel, or you will break through the plate.
At this point, you should do any abrasive finishing on the tablets that you want to: sanding, smoothing or chamfering the edges, etc. It is important to do all the sanding now; if you sand the tablets after the wax is poured it will muck up the wax. Remember: don't sand the surface on which you will pour the wax. You can paint or oil the tablets now or later, but you must leave the surfaces on which you will pour the wax free of oil or paint. I suggest liberal amounts of boiled linseed oil.
Now that you have prepared the tablets, you must apply a thin layer of wax to each writing surface. I recommend beeswax blackened with lampblack (powdered carbon). Beeswax can be obtained at any apiary, or wherever you can buy honey in quantity. Lampblack can be purchased from pigment suppliers. Alternatively, you can blacken the wax by melting a black wax crayon into it. Some manufacturers make crayons with plastic in them; if you are not sure what your crayon is made of, melt it separately. If it melts like wax, you're OK.If you have a thermometer, then heat the wax in a pot with the thermometer in it (remember to keep the thermometer from touching the bottom of the pan). At this point keep the wax around 225 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don't have a candy thermometer, melt your wax in a double-boiler. Either way, don't fill the pot more than halfway with wax.
Once the wax is liquid, add the carbon slowly and carefully; as you add the carbon, the wax may suddenly boil and foam vigorously, so add it slowly and stir continuously. Do not ever leave the wax on the heat unattended. You will need to add from one to three tablespoons of carbon to a quarter- to a half-pound of wax. Once the wax has stablized, stir until the carbon is evenly distributed. Then stir some more. Check the color of the wax by pouring a spoonful into a depression in some aluminum foil; once it has cooled and hardened, check the color and add more carbon if you want it darker. Be sure to let the wax harden completely: it will look greenish when warm, but will darken as it cools.
Lay the tablets on a level surface. Double-check that the tablets are level, and shim the corners of the tablets as necessary.
If you are using a thermometer, slowly bring the wax up to 300 degrees. If you are using a double-boiler, let the water boil in order to bring up the heat of the melted wax. I have found that the hotter wax cools into a smoother surface and gives you a little more time to spread it out before it hardens. However, if you don't have a thermometer to use, then use the double-boiler for safety!
Stir the wax one last time. Pour the molten (this means very hot) wax into the tablets, using a chopstick or other narrow rod to direct the flow to the middle of the tablet. Use the stick to break the surface tension and conduct the wax evenly over the entire surface. Don't overpour: it is better to pour a thin layer than to overflow the tablet.
Usually, the wood will bubble as the wax seeps in; these bubbles will create an uneven surface. So, before the wax has entirely cooled, scrape it out with a spoon (sorry, folks), re-melt it, and pour it again. Generally, it is only necessary to re-pour once, but if the wax has too many bubbles you may choose to re-pour again. Bubbles in the wax create a poor writing surface.
Once the wax has cooled enough for the plates to be moved, place them on a cooling rack. Forced cooling, as in a refrigerator, can produce a poor surface; be patient. If you have made a double-sided mid-plate, then you need to wax both sides. Make sure the first side has entirely cooled before pouring the second.
Styli were made in a wide range of styles and many were very elaborate. This section will describe how to make a simple stylus.
Obtain an old, broken arrow. Cut off a comfortable length (slightly shorter than than your tablet or you will stick yourself), like a pen or pencil. Remove any finish from the shaft. File and sand it to one of the illustrated shapes (see Figure 3, below). The eraser end should be well-smoothed with 300-grit sandpaper. Use a pencil sharpener to taper the writing end, but don't sharpen it all the way: leave a flat end. Sand the whole thing smooth, then coat it liberally with the oil.
I recommend using a tapestry needle for the nib. Cut off the eye of the needle. Insert the clipped end into the tip of the stylus using a pair of pliers. Grip the needle close to the clipped end and push the needle in slowly, a bit at a time. This way, you won't bend the needle. Leave at least an eighth of an inch of the needle sticking out of the wood. If you are using a hard wood for your stylus, than there is less chance of splitting the stylus when putting in the point. If you get a smaller tapestry needle, heat it red hot and use it to burn a hole into the tip of the wood first. Then insert the needle into the hole as described above.
Once you make your stylus, enjoy writing on the freshly poured surface. You'll never get to do it again. Write to your heart's delight! You may find that your standard script is ill-suited to writing in wax. Experiment. There were special hands used on tablets; some users in the SCA have developed their own hands by trial-and-error.
There is no need to inscribe very deeply in the wax; it doesn't make it significantly easier to read, and it makes it much harder to erase. You can write quite small and still have readable text. As you write, the stylus will collect curls of wax; wipe them off from time to time in a corner of the writing surface. These scraps will be useful later when you erase the tablet.
When reading the tablet, you may find that you can highlight the writing against the wax by turning the tablet to just the right angle to the light. Once you write on the tablets, the text will remain until you erase it. You do not need to worry about the wax melting or flowing unless you leave the tablets sitting in a hot automobile or some similarly extreme condition.
Methods for erasing depend on the shape of your stylus. If you made one with a ball or egg-shaped end, then hold the rounded end of the stylus against the writing, apply some pressure, and rub the stylus back and forth in order to smooth the wax. If you have a flat wedge-like end, then draw the stylus across the surface in one direction to smooth out the wax. You don't need to bear down very hard; lots of firm, even strokes will work best. For deep grooves, take some of those small curls of wax from the corner of the writing surface and rub them into the grooves before starting to smooth the surface. If you are working with a double-sided plate, place it on a solid, supporting surface before erasing; the wood separating the two wax layers is very thin. Erase with long parallel strokes. The smoother your strokes, the smoother the surface you produce and the easier it will be to read the next thing you write. You can improve the surface by repeating the erasing with lighter strokes, and you can produce a glossy finish by rubbing it lightly with your fingertip.
A word of caution: do not operate your tablet in a sawdust-filled basement. It mucks up your wax; I learned the hard way!
Anglicus, Bartholomaeus. See Seymour.
[Academia Litterarum Regiae Borussicae.] Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, Vol. III pars posterior. Berlin: George Reimer, 1873.
Aldhelm. See Pitman.
Backhouse, Janet. The Lindisfarne Gospels. Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Benedict, Saint. See Fry.
Boileau, Étienne. See Depping.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. See Pratt.
Depping, G.-B. Réglemens sur les Arts et Métiers de Paris, Rédigés au XIII Siècle, et connus sous le nom du Livre des Métiers d'Étienne Boileau.... Paris: Crapelet, 1837.
Elliott, Ralph W.V. Runes: An Introduction, Second Edition. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989.
Fry, Timothy, ed., The Rule of St. Benedict, Abridged Edition in Latin and English. Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1981.
Gaimster, David R.M., Margeson, Sue, and Hurley, Maurice. "Medieval Britain and Ireland in 1989," Medieval Archaeology, XXXIV (1990), p. 221 and Plate XIII.
Hughes, T. McKenny. "On Some Waxed Tablets Said to Have Been Found at Cambridge," Archaeologia, LV (1897), pp. 257-282.
Levinson, Jay A., ed. Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration. New Haven: Yale University Press; Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1991.
Lopez, Robert S., and Raymond, Irving W. Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World: Illustrative Documents Translated with Introductions and Notes. Records of Civilization, Sources and Studies LII. New York: Columbia University Press, 1955.
MacGregor, Arthur. Bone Antler Ivory & Horn: The Technology of Skeletal Materials Since the Roman Period. London: Croom Helm/Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985.
Pitman, James Hall, trans. The Riddles of Aldhelm. Yale Studies in English LXVII. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1925.
Pratt, Robert A., ed. The Tales of Canterbury. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.
M.C. Seymour, ed. On the Properties of Things: John Trevisa's Translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum: A Critical Text, vol. 2, Book XVII. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
In the SCA, Greg Priest-Dorman is known as Dofinn-Hallr Morrisson; Carolyn Priest-Dorman is known as Þóra Sharptooth; and Joshua Mittleman is known as Arval Benicoeur, or Arval d'Espas Nord.
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