Iceland was deforested since early settlement, and possibly never had oaks. It has no gall wasps either. I understand that Iceland was very isolated in medieval times. So without oak galls, how did they make the ink the famous medieval Icelandic literature was written with?
That's a really good question. As far as I know, there isn't yet a definitive answer, although I haven't kept fully up to date with the subject in recent years..
In Care and Conservation of Manuscripts: Proceedings of the First International Seminar on the Care and Conservation of Manuscripts Held at the University of Copenhagen 25th-26th April 1994, Ogmundur Helgason observed that:
"No written formulas for Icelandic inks are preserved earlier than the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries."
The author further describes some unsuccessful attempts to determine the chemical composition of the inks.
There are several possibilities for how the ink was produced:
- The ink may have been a standard iron gallo-tannate type ("iron gall") ink, and either the raw materials or the ink itself were brought to Iceland as trade goods. This may have been used either with or without the addition of lampblack.
- An alternative for the tannins was locally sourced to create a substitute ink that was functionally similar to the more familiar iron gallo-tannate type ink.
- There are some suggestions that the inks were made from various types of berries, but these seem to be based on the much later sources.
- These may all have been used at different times and in different places on the island depending on the resources available to the community and the perceived importance of the manuscript.
As I said, I haven't kept fully up-to-date with the subject in recent years. I know that there have been significant advances in the techniques used to analyse the inks (particularly Raman Spectroscopy and X-ray Fluorescence), but I haven't read any reports that they have been applied to Icelandic manuscripts.
An explanation of these techniques , together with some examples of where they have been applied in recent years will be found in the papers and articles listed below:
- Non-invasive Techniques Applied to Cultural Heritage: Raman Spectroscopy and X-ray Fluorescence for the Study of Medieval Manuscripts (Masters degree thesis)
- Common Medieval Pigments
- Raman microscopy and x-ray fluorescence analysis of pigments on medieval and Renaissance Italian manuscript cuttings
- Tracking ink composition on Herculaneum papyrus scrolls: quantification and speciation of lead by X-ray based techniques and Monte Carlo simulations (perhaps of less use here, although the techniques discussed here show what might be possible if inks were found to contain contain significant levels of heavy metals, such as lead).
No expert scribe about to invest months of time, yards of prepared vellum, and scarce pigments would want to skimp on the black ink. In the middle ages, iron gall ink was the dominant standard for writing on vellum and paper alike. Nearly all black ink in colonial North America was of this type (Black Writing Ink of the Colonial Period, William J. Barrow).
By comparison, I can't find a mention of anyone using berry ink for serious work. The berry ink mentioned in the Thousand and One Nights was supposed to be written on "white-stained gazelle vellum with fly-leaves of snowy papyrus", to put it in context.
Norwegian merchants regularly brought tools and other status goods to Iceland. (Viking Age Iceland by Jesse Byock). As such, five of the six pigments in the Skarðsbók's illuminations were imported (Proceedings of the First International Seminar on the Care and Conservation of Manuscripts). Meanwhile, the black ink couldn't be identified. No evidence showed that it was locally made; I bet it was imported.
Iceland's economic decline in the 18th century greatly reduced imports and could have prompted the invention of the local recipes mentioned after the medieval period.