Thursday, 17 December 2009

Build Your Own Notebook: Writing Tablets from the Renaissance

What an ingenious solution to the problem of writing on the move! Writing tablets! Or writing-tables, or table-books. The first such portable notebooks were made in the Low Countries and Germany in 1527. They contained blank leaves of specially treated paper that acted as a wipe board. The writing tablets could be used again and again (though sometimes the previous writings being not completely erased these portable notebooks resembled palimpsests).

Hamlet portrays his memory as a wipeable "table":

Yea, from the Table of my Memory,
Ille wipe away all triuiall fond Records,
All sawes of Bookes, all formes, all presures past,
That youth and obseruation coppied there;

Inspired perhaps by this quote the authors of "Hamlet's Tables" published in the Shakespeare Quarterly in 2004 explore the technologies of writing in Renaissance England. And writing tablets are top of the list.

The writing tablets produced by Robert Triplet in 1604 came with instructions for use:

To make cleane your Tables, when they are written on:
Take a lyttle peece of a Spunge, or a Linnen cloath, being cleane without any soyle: wet it in water, and wring it hard, & wipe that you haue written very lightly, and it wyll out, and within one quarter of an howre, you maye wryte in the same place agayne: put not your leaues together, whylst they be very wet with wyping.
How to Build A Notebook

Making portable notebooks or writing tablets such as those used by merchants, poets and aristocrats of the Renaissance, you will need to probably get hold of a book of secret recipes - trade secrets that is, to which only artisan guild members were privy to. But such secrets did came out and in 1555 Girolamo Ruscelli, published The Secrets of Master Alexis of Piemont revealing to the world how to make "white tables to write in... such as come out of Germanie".

A medieval scribe

Writing tablets, or writing-tables consisted of printed pages bound together with blank pages of erasable paper, or parchment. So to build a notebook you will need to know how to bind the printed material together with treated blank paper. You could also have writing tablets with no printed material in them. An example of a notebook with 12 erasable leaves is held in the British Library and dates from the late 17th century.

For the blank paper you will need parchment, or "pasteboard" or "asses' skin". For the coating, gesso and glue are essential. Gesso was a mix of chalk dust, white pigment and animal-derived glue. Mix gesso and glue and apply on your parchment in several coats and you will have the perfect notebook cum wipe board, ready to go.

Parchment making. 
Jost Amman and Hans Sachs, Frankfurt am Main, 1568

On writing tablets see the excellent and detailed "Hamlet's tables and the technologies of writing in Renaissance England" by Peter Stallybrass, Roger Chartier, J. Franklin Mowery, Heather Wolfe, in Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 4, Winter 2004 from where most of this information was taken. My "Portable Notebooks and Writing Technology in Suite101. On Renaissance secret recipes see "How to" Trade Secrets Revealed: Renaissance secret recipes from Venetian glass to marbling paper" on Suite101.


  1. Verily the etch a sketch is not new...
    and the whiteboard beloved of ye management trainers has been with us for many a year.
    'put not your leaues together, whylst they be very wet with wyping' Good advice

  2. Once you have found something that you worry about enough to write about it, the blank space will fill itself. Instead, give attention to currently talking about something that matters for your requirements, and explaining to the reader how you felt, what happened, and why it matters. online paper writing service