Leaf of a Writing Tablet


On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 307

It is probable that this leaf from a writing tablet, as with many extant writing tablets, was intended for letter writing. The decoration of the exterior of many of these ivory tablets, carved with scenes of courtship and chivalric romances, suggests that they were used by noble men and women for love poems or secret letters. Though this particular tablet is its fragmentary state, complete tablets are known. A similar, complete writing box was designed to hold not only the leaves, but also the stylus and a sunken receptacle for wax.
Writing tablets of wood, metal, or ivory, which had been in use from the days of ancient Egypt, were not medieval inventions. They were, however, important writing implements in a period when paper and parchment were both scarce and expensive. The value of the writing tablets lay in their reusable character. A brief message or account could be inscribed with a stylus on a thin layer of wax spread on the back of the tablet. After the recipient had read it, it could be erased so that an answer could be written in the wax and sent back to the owner. Though this medium did not lend itself to permanent records, it is probable that scribes used writing tablets for dictation of information which was to be transcribed later on parchment or paper; students, too, may have used writing tablets for practice exercises, and housewives, for inventories or accounts. These writing tablets were often equipped, as were many medieval objects, with leather cases to protect them both in storage and when carried on the person or during travel.

Leaf of a Writing Tablet, Elephant ivory, French

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