Secrets of Forgotten Masters:
A 21st Century Artist's Exploration of How The Medieval Manuscript Book Was Made
Randy Asplund
Secrets of Forgotten Masters is a work still in progress.

All images are © Randy Asplund

Before the age of printing, every bit of our knowledge and culture that we have not taken from the ground or learned by word of mouth was passed on to us in the form of the hand-made book. Today we are able to sit down at a computer and write as much as we wish for little expense. Without leaving the house we can buy a printed or digital book using that same computer. But what did it take to get a book in an age where it all had to be made by hand from raw materials? Most people today are unaware of the tremendous skills, material knowledge, resources and artistic ability required to make those books. Secrets of Forgotten Masters is your key to unlocking the materials and techniques used to make illuminated manuscript books in Northwestern Europe between 700 and 1500 AD. It is the product of many years of direct hands-on research and artistic challenges, of scientific study and examination of extant examples to confirm the real story. SoFM debunks the misunderstandings. It is backed by cited documentation, original research and experimentation, and supported by the skills and knowledge of an artist who makes complete authentic medieval books for a living.

Secrets of Forgotten Masters takes you on a visually rich and informative journey starting with manufacturing the waxed tablets used by authors to compose books all the way through to binding the finished manuscript as a complete book. Follow the author through making the ink and quills for writing, making the colors and illustrating, and see how it was all put together. Read translations of ancient recipes passed down from medieval authors and see how that information was confirmed by modern science and experimentation with those recipes, learning which work and which do not. SoFM is a book about making and using colors from raw materials, about wood working, about metal casting, about leather working, and even some needlecraft. It opens the door to understanding how different methods evolved for the processes used to create these master works of illuminated manuscript book art. And when you read about just how much work, expense, travel and education were needed in order to create a single book, your appreciation of the marvel of medieval technology will leave you awestruck.

Bookmark this page and check back as Secrets of Forgotten Masters comes together. The research is in late stages and the writing is in progress. In the meantime, please enjoy a few pictures of what this book is all about...

In Secrets of Forgotten Masters you will not only see how medieval work can be created in the modern studio, you will also see images like this which will draw you in to the spirit of the time. If you were a lawyer, a scribe, a clerk, or even a noble who wished to write a letter, you needed a pen case, quill pens, a small pen knife, a whet stone, possibly a parchment pricker, and of course a pot of ink. I made this reproduction of a 15th c. writing set commonly known as an "Inkhorn." See pictures and read all about how to make one of your own.
The process of making the prized medieval ultramarine blue from lapis lazuli taken from the same mine in Afghanistan as it was back inthe middle ages. Learn how it was produced to be darker and richer than the same pigment bought today from commercial suppliers.
The pipkin was one of several studio pottery items used in the middle ages to brew colors for manuscript illumination. See my reproductions in use andsee the originals they are based on.
In an old European kitchen fireplace, weld (a weed known as reseda luteola) is boiled in potash inside a reproduction cauldron. Alum and chalk are added after the yellow dye is extracted and the chalk dyed to make a yellow "lake" pigment.
From the Canary Islands, this is rocella tinctoria, the lichen from which purple was made to dye the pages of the most lavish medieval books. You'll learn how it was made into paint and dye which is often misidentified as Tyrian Purple.
A calf skin parchment (vellum) page of a Psalter being decorated with raised gold, and precious colors. Medieval books were bound inside covers of wood with thin leather over them. The wood had to be split from the log, sawn into boards, planed down to the right thickness, and then shaped and carved with fancy edges. Holes and channels were cut to secure the tawed leather thongs onto which the pages were sewn.
Making medieval parchment for the pages of the book was a specialized skill. The skins of goats, sheep and calves have long been considered the ultimate material for longevity and durability. See the entire authentic process and learn to make your own! Here are just a few of the tools used for making medieval books. In Secrets of Forgotten Masters you will learn all about how they were used. You will even see how some were made!

So many books have been written showing beautiful pages of medieval manuscript illumination, but few have more than the most basic mention of how great artists made these great works. Even books about how to create medieval calligraphy and illumination usually show a modern context, with modern tools and materials. Secrets of Forgotten Masters will take you back in time. You will see how it was really done using the right stuff. Whether you wish to learn to make this art yourself or you just have a casual interest for your own entertainment, you will be amazed to find what people could do so very long ago.

See pictures and text about how I make my books, parchment, colors, tools, and more on my Articles Page-

Making Ecclesiastes
8th c. Carolingian Binding
Northumbrian Content

Making the Schiff Book
15th Century style

More books coming, including video tours of full books! Online: TBA