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Medieval Wax Tablets: an experiment

Every year, our research centre participates in a national Science Fair, with presentation of medieval palaeography and documents - a good way to introduce the general audience and even children to the actual work of historians.
We already have some material (online exercises, posters, but also real pieces of vellum and papyrus), but I thought it would be nice to show our visitors a set of wax tablets. I decided to have an experiment and make the tablets myself. Here is a short report of the process!

Let us start with the end product:

Tablets - cover

Tablets - open

Among the vast literature on wax tablets, I found the necessary practical information in some works of Elisabeth Lalou:

Elisabeth Lalou, "Les tablettes de cire médiévales", dans Bibliothèque de l'école des chartes, 1989, tome 147, pp. 123-140.

Elisabeth Lalou, "Inventaire des tablettes médiévales et présentation générale", dans E. Lalou éd., Les tablettes a écrire de l'Antiquité à l'époque Moderne, Turnhout, 1992 (Bibliologia, 12), p. 233-280.

I am also grateful to Elisabeth Lalou and Marc Smith for their advice.

The first step was to find some suitable piece of wood, which proved more difficult than I expected. Boxwood would have been ideal, but it is expensive and difficult to find in small, thin planks like I needed. Fortunately medieval tablets came in a variety of woods, and I finally settled for a spruce lath, already of suitable size and very cheap at my local DIY shop. The only drawback was that the lath was lined on one side, but I decided to make do with it.
Carving rectangular wells with wood chisels was actually easier than I expected.

Tablets - carved

Waxing the tablets proved to be the more delicate stage of the process. I tried different strategies, and finally opted for pure beeswax, mixed with carbon for the black colour. For waxing a set of two tablets of about 20x10 cm, you will need about 100g of beeswax, and 0,4g of carbon. The carbon can be obtained from lampblack, or by crushing charcoal in a mortar, but you'll need to filter the powder very carefully. But I found that the easiest and most efficient way to obtain suitable carbon was to buy capsules of medicinal activated carbon.

Heat the wax in the saucepan, and once melted pour the carbon then mix. Put the tablet on a plane surface, and pour the hot, black wax in the carved well.
Be aware that you are very likely to make an awful mess, and protect the furniture accordingly.
Note that the hot wax seems greenish or greyish, but it takes its opaque, black colour when it cools down.

It is quite difficult to obtain a smooth surface of the wax. The most efficient ways I have tried were:
The oven - preheat an oven at 180°C, put the waxed tablet on a dish in the oven and watch over it until the was melts. You can obtain a very nice, smooth surface with this technique, but beware not to overheat the wood, it could get damaged in the process.
The least medieval of all techniques: the hair-dryer! Perfect to melt only the upper layer of wax and correct imperfections. Handle carefully, it is very easy to project hot wax with the blow.

Now, to the decor of the tablets. They were never painted, but could be carved. Given my limited artistic abilities, I chose a simple enough pattern, copied from a set of tablets kept in the Polish town of Torun, then adapted to the shape of my own set.

Torun Tablet set

I made an SVG model of this pattern, wich you can download here.

I traced the pattern on the tablet cover with the help of tracing paper, then used a pyrogravure kit. Finally, I applied a a layer of linseed oil on the wood to protect it and give it a nice, darker colour, then used a leather thong to bind together the two tablets.

As for the stylus... I am planning to buy a nice metal replica at some point, but for the moment, just to try and write, I made a stylus out of a bamboo chopstick. Surprisingly, it is quite hard, and good enough to try your hand at wax tablet writing!

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