In the era of what most would call “medieval times”, journals often played a significant part in the lives of many different people. Though most have been what could be considered functionally illiterate in regard to the standard alphabet of their culture, anyone could develop their own system to record their knowledge and experiences. Using a combination of known words, simple characters, and even pictures, the life histories and craft knowledge of a multitude have been chronicled in journals.
While scholarly journal keeping was an obvious trait of medieval intellectuals, who often noted the results of their studies and recorded thoughts for later consideration, there were many similar reasons for even the “unlearned” to practice the habit as well. Sailors, merchants and other regular travelers would compose various notations during their adventures to assist them in the event of their return and during any future expeditions. In a time when a long distance excursion could span weeks, months, or even years, a well-kept journal could easily determine whether or not a voyager survived to reach the destination at all. A good record of pathways, potential hazards, and safe havens significantly increased the chances of avoiding disaster.
Pencils, pens and paper as we know them were unheard of in medieval times, but the arts of writing have been around since centuries before that, and there were many other materials available to those who wished to transcribe their knowledge. While nearly any combination of a surface to write upon, and some way to mark or apply color could be used to scrawl, the most common inscription tools of the time were ink and parchment and the quill.
Inks could be made from nearly anything as well, but there were actually two standard recipes. The first and perhaps earlier method involved the use of charcoal, while the second used a substance known as metal-gall and was the primary ink used after the 12th century.
Parchment was a paper-like material made through special preparation of the skins of various animals by a ‘percamenarius’, which was the name given to those who practiced the art of parchment making. These skilled craftsmen were considered as part of the artisan class, and by the late Middle Ages could be found in nearly any city or town.
A scribe’s quill was literally made from one of the stronger feathers of a large bird. These feathers were first strengthened by heating them in hot sand, before the ends are carefully carved to form a fine “nib”, which could later be re-sharpened as it wore down with use. This nib and hollow structure of the quill allowed one to apply ink with relatively fine detail and control, and roughly the same design remains used today.