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By Danièle Cybulskie
Last week, I shared with you my experience building a tiny trebuchet, and it reminded me of the time two years ago when I made my own medieval-style wax tablet, so I thought I’d share that, too. Since vellum and linen paper were difficult to make, wax tablets were used for temporary writing in the Middle Ages. They were especially useful for students, who could use them to jot down notes quickly during their lectures, so we often hear about them in this context. Here’s the five-minute story of how I made my own, and what it taught me.
I tend to be spontaneous when it comes to getting medieval (probably because it helps me avoid thinking about awkward things like where you store a trebuchet), so I built my wax tablet with the tools I had on hand. I started with a standard-sized plank of wood (a two-by-four), and carved out the shallow rectangle I wanted to pour wax in before I sawed the plank to the length I wanted. This was simply because I didn’t have a vise with which to steady my tablet as I chiseled at it; I knelt on the plank instead. First, I used the chisel to make a rough outline of the rectangle I wanted to cut out, then I chiseled strips of wood until I had a fairly even indentation. Once I’d figured out how to peel back the wood with the chisel (instead of hacking at it), getting an indentation of about 1/8” was fairly quick work. I then sawed the soon-to-be tablet off the rest of the plank, making my table roughly the size of a modern e-reader. The edges were a bit rough, and while medieval people had chisels and hammers, I wasn’t sure they had sandpaper. I looked around to figure out what might have been used instead, and found a rough piece of granite in the yard. It worked really well.
I didn’t have any beeswax on hand, and (although I was trying to be relatively authentic) by this time the stores were closed, so I improvised using four tea lights. I did honestly try to melt them fondue-style with a bowl and another candle, but that barely melted them at all. Not having access to an open flame and the long-handled bowls or spoons medieval people used for melting wax (for seals, etc.), I used a microwave to melt the tea lights (sans metal holders and wicks), and poured the melted wax into the tablet. It took most of an hour to cool, but then it was ready to go.
Never having tried this before, I was impressed by what an amazing tool this was for taking notes. The stylus barely has to scrape the wax to leave a very legible imprint, and words can be scraped off with similar ease. The wax in my tablet is only, as I mentioned, about 1/8” deep, but it would take dozens of impressions and scrapings before reaching the bottom. If you don’t want to scrape off your last bit of writing, you can simply put the tablet in the sun for fifteen minutes (more or less), and then reshape the wax with your fingers. If you do scrape too far down, you can always add more wax on top. The impressions stay there as long as is needed, and won’t wash away if the tablet gets wet. It is really such a simple and elegant solution to the problem of expensive writing tools.
Wax tablets have been around since ancient times, and now that I’ve made one, I can see why. They’re easy to make, use, and reuse; they’re light and durable; they’re portable; and they have lots of room for making mistakes. Unlike the trebuchet, a wax tablet is fairly easy to make without any guidelines at all, so it’s a great little project you can make to impress friends who are impressed by such things this summer.
For my post next week, I’m going to continue getting hands-on with the past by trying my hand at medieval cooking. Wish me luck!
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist