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Chalk: The White Stuff Beneath Our Feet


In the medieval period, white chalk played a significant role in various aspects of daily life. From practical applications to artistic endeavours, chalk was a versatile and valuable material. Here’s a closer look at the medieval use of chalk.

Slate and Paper

Chalk was commonly used for writing and drawing purposes. It was an accessible and inexpensive writing tool that could be easily erased or smudged. In early schools and monastic settings, students and scribes used chalk on slate tablets or parchment to practice writing, make notes, or create temporary illustrations.

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Chalk was also utilised in the creation of illuminated manuscripts, which were intricate and richly decorated handwritten books. Scribes would apply it as a preparatory layer on the parchment to create a smooth surface for writing and painting.

It also helped prevent ink from bleeding into the fibres and allowed for finer details in the illustrations. Early paper was expensive so mistakes were costly.

Meudon
A former chalk mine in Meudon, France. Not everyone had access to chalk so it was used in trade.

Chalk served as a versatile artistic medium in the medieval period. Artists, particularly those working on walls or murals, used chalk as a preliminary sketching tool. They would outline the desired design on the surface before applying pigments or frescoes. The soft texture of chalk allowed for easy corrections and modifications.

Chalk in Medieval Trades

Chalk was commonly used by medieval tailors and seamstresses. They would mark patterns and measurements on fabrics using chalk, enabling precise cutting and stitching. The chalk markings were temporary and could be easily removed or washed away once the sewing was complete. The same method is still used by tailors today.

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Basic chalk was an essential component in medieval masonry and construction. In areas where chalk deposits were abundant, it was used as a building material.

Chalk blocks or stones were quarried and shaped for construction purposes, particularly for foundations, walls, and even entire buildings. Its natural properties made it durable and suitable for constructing sturdy structures.

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Medieval doctors often used chalk in early medicines. The same as today! Chalk had various medicinal uses in medieval times. It was believed to possess healing properties, particularly for digestive issues and stomach ailments.

Chalk powder was sometimes consumed orally as a remedy for indigestion or heartburn. Additionally, chalk was also used as an ingredient in medicinal compounds and poultices applied externally for skin ailments or soothing irritations.

Colouring

Chalk was ground into a fine powder and used as a white pigment in medieval art and decoration. Artists would mix chalk powder with binders like water, egg whites, or animal glue to create a white paint known as “gesso.” Gesso was used as a base layer for paintings, sculptures, and gilding, providing a smooth and luminous surface.

Chalk
An open chalk pit. Chalk was quarried or mined in medieval England.

Another product that featured chalk heavily was medieval cosmetics, particularly in the creation of face powders and foundations.

Finely ground chalk powder was mixed with other substances like white lead or powdered pearls to produce face powders that would give the skin a paler and smoother appearance.

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These cosmetics were used by both men and women of higher social status.

Look Again

The use of chalk in medieval times demonstrates its versatility and importance across various domains. From education to art, construction to medicine, chalk was a readily available and widely utilised material. Its affordability, reusability, and versatility made it an indispensable tool and medium for many aspects of medieval life.

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