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?

  • 1
    Lapis lazuli was often ground to create blue inks. It's from the Pakistan region. I don't know if it got to Iceland.
    – Chloe
    Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 4:19
  • 5
    The answer, like most answers, is probably trade. Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 11:20
  • @Chloe Was it? That strikes me as rather expensive. Also, does Lapus lazuli occur in Iceland?
    – HannesH
    Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 14:30
  • 4
    @HannesH - Until recently the only known source was Pakistan. That's why archeologists love finding it; its existence is proof of trade at least indirectly with that region.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 14:36

2 Answers 2


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."

  • [p94]

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:

  • 1
    Juice from coloured berries can result in annoying blots on a shirt, but as an ink it would be quite disappointing. Ogmundur Helgason points out that the old manuscrips have very good (dark) ink. However, juniper berries are native to iceland - and contain a lot of tannins. Maybe thats the missing gall replacement. As for the gum arabic btw, i think birch trees provide for a replacement. Any idea how to find Mr. Helgason? Not knowing icelandic, i seem not to be able to google him.
    – HannesH
    Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 1:30
  • @HannesH I remember reading a suggestion that iron gall ink (or the ingredients for making it) may have been among the trade items of that time. I think I read an obituary for Ögmundur Helgason about 10 years ago, but I don't speak Icelandic either, so I can't be sure it was the same man. Online translation tools are often imperfect. Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 1:45
  • Yes, i thought so when reading that the colouring pigments identified were all imported as well (the minerals, he writes, do not occure in iceland).
    – HannesH
    Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 1:49
  • A very simple x-ray would at least reveal wether or not the ink is metal- based. Has that never been done, really?
    – HannesH
    Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 15:37
  • 3
    @HannesH I suspect that the levels of metal in the ink are a lot lower than you think they are. I know that there have been recent advances in X-ray absorption microspectroscopy that are being applied to ink analysis, for example of the Papyrus fragments from Herculanaeum (although I'm not fully au fait with the details), but I don't think simple absorption X-rays would provide the contrast you're hoping for. Levels of iron in blood are far higher than those in the ink, and absorption X-rays are not a reliable indicator there either. Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 17:12

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.

  • 'Viking Age Iceland' might have been regularly supplied from Norway, but was that still the case in, say, 1100-1500? I am not aware of trade goods unique to Iceland that would merit that dangerous voyage for medieval traders. And isn't it quite limiting to have all your book writing depend on imports?
    – HannesH
    Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 14:20
  • @HannesH One could make the same argument of anything. That being said, did you know that Chinese manufacturers finally figured out how to make ballpoint pens earlier this year? They previously had to import the pen tips. Granted, the voyage to China these days isn't as dangerous as traveling to Iceland in the Middle Ages, but the motivation would be the same - pursuit of profits through trade. Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 14:53
  • 1
    If I was a betting man, I'd probably bet that it was imported too. We generally assume the inks are iron gallo-tannate types, but it is important to state that this is an assumption. To date, sadly, we simply lack the evidence to say with certainty. Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 16:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.