Ancient Egyptian Insults

”You’re acting like a mosquito after wolves!”

”Spouter of Water!”

”Your heart is disturbed and your senses scattered!”

Ancient Egyptians, as we do today, sometimes felt the need to vent their feelings.  All of the insults above are actual insults from texts and inscriptions and tombs.  10880.110

In her wonderful book, Write Your Own Egyptian Hieroglyphs: (University of California Press, 2007), Angela McDonald introduces us to the ”real” side of ancient Egypt — the living, breathing, and sometimes squabbling people behind the monumental tombs and formal mummy cases.

Introducing readers to hieroglyphic script — and how to write it — she offers useful information on the names people chose for themselves (and their pets!); what gods were called; and how you, too, can begin to learn how to write hieroglyphs.

With luck, and diligence, after reading this practical (and highly entertaining!) guide, no ancient Egyptian — or mummy-come-back-to-life — will ever say to you…

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Brother Hugo Coloring Sheet

Here’s a fun image of the inspiration for Brother Hugo — the real medieval scribe, “Hugo Pictor” (Hugh the Painter).  I blogged about him here — and now you can become a medieval scribe yourself with this coloring sheet!

Simply click on the image here, or open the PDF file below that, to print out your own sheet and enjoy.


Enhanced Hugo Pictor for color sheet copy



A Book Trailer for Brother Hugo and the Bear

Out today — a book trailer, prepared by Eerman’s Books for Young Readers, for Brother Hugo and the Bear!

From the Publisher:

Poor Brother Hugo can’t return his library book — the letters of St. Augustine — because, it turns out, the precious book has been devoured by a bear!

Instructed by the abbot to borrow another monastery’s copy and create a replacement, the hapless monk painstakingly crafts a new book, copying it letter by letter and line by line.

Brother Hugo and the Bear is based loosely on a note found in a twelfth-century manuscript — and largely on the creative imaginings of author Katy Beebe. Lavishly illustrated by S. D. Schindler in the style of medieval manuscripts, this humorous tale is sure to delight readers young and old who have acquired their own taste for books.

Get to know Katy Beebe and her charming new picture book in the book trailer above.

A Medieval Bear a Day

A Medieval Bear a Day Week!

In anticipation of Brother Hugo & the Bear‘s upcoming publishing date,

Monkey Riding a Bear

I’ll be posting a medieval bear a day on my Facebook page this week — just the sort of portraits that Brother Hugo might have drawn of his new friend.

Follow me at

The Secret Behind the Story: A Medieval Selfie*

Q: What do you do when your library book has been eaten by a bear?

A: Make a new one, of course!

It’s not the set-up to an elementary school joke, really, but the plight of some poor, hapless monk who lived all the way back in the twelfth century. What do you do when the book you’re supposed to be taking care of, the really precious one that you were allowed (as a special favor) to take out to an isolated spot to pray over and study, gets snuffled down in two gulps as an ursine snack? This situation — and an utterly charming self-portrait by an eleventh-century monk who called himself “hugo pictor” (Hugh the Painter) — together formed the inspiration for my children’s picture book, Brother Hugo and the Bear, coming out from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers this April. I wrote about the book-munching bear mentioned in a twelfth-century letter of Peter the Venerable in my author’s note at the end of Brother Hugo, but the secret-behind-the-story is that there’s another Brother Hugo . . . a real one. And his part in inspiring our book hasn’t yet been told.

I love studying history. Not the kind of history that people usually think of — the long lists of dates, memorization of “important” battles, or who ruled after whom after whom after whom — but the kind of history where you suddenly run across something that grabs you up and shouts in your ear: “Hey! This is real! I’m real, and I lived and breathed and got hungry, just like you.”

Brother Hugo illuminated

That’s what I felt when I ran across Hugo pictor for the first time. He tucked himself away into a corner of the end of a manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 717, fol. 287v) of Saint Jerome’s Commentary on Isaiahover nine hundred years ago — and he’s still there, peering out at us. His is perhaps the oldest known self-portrait by an illuminator, the person whose job it was to “draw the pictures” and occasionally add in the rubricated letters (the “red” or “colored” letters that began pages, sections, or sentences) in medieval manuscripts. Another monk, the scribe, had the responsibility of writing out the words themselves. Many times the same person would both write the words and illuminate the pages, but in our monk Hugo pictor’s case, his representation suggests that he was there just to provide “color commentary” — literally.

In his self-portrait, he sits in a nifty writing chair with a built-in inkhorn rising from the arm, not exactly with his mind on his work. He gazes off into the mid-distance, his blue monk’s robe draped around him, penknife in his right hand hovering over a lined manuscript page on a tilted writing desk, his left hand dipping a quill or a brush into his horn of ink, lost in thought. Is he in the middle of correcting a mistake? Is he holding the page still with his knife while he goes for more ink? With expressive eyebrows, green tonsured hair, and bright spots on his cheeks, he’s absolutely real — and he wants you to know it! Traditional scribal anonymity (and modesty) is not for him. On either side of his portrait, framing his head, he has written: hu — go. pic — tor. Just above, tucked in between the top of his arch and the zig-zag lines he has drawn to separate the text from the rubricated title letters below, he writes: imago pictoris et illuminatoris huius operis “The image of the painter and illuminator of this work.”

Brother Hugo and the BearThis bit of well-deserved pride wasn’t his only self-portrait, either. Hugo also left us with another medieval selfie in part of an illuminated letter “E”, where he shows himself as a priest or a deacon blessing an Easter candle. The figure there is inscribed as “hugo levita” or Hugh the Deacon (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Ms. lat. 13765, fol. B). “E” here stands for Exultet, the hymn of praise sung during the Easter vigil, and the singer or speaker of this prayer is a prominent person in the Easter ritual. Hugo was apparently just making sure we would know that he was the one involved, just as he does in the Bodleian manuscript. That’s our boy.

At the Oscars this year, Ellen’s famous selfie crashed Twitter, and Benedict Cumberbatch successfully photobombed the band U2 with his aerial shenanigans. But Hugo pictor outdid them both: he photobombed Saint Jerome’s Commentary on Isaiah, and his epic selfie has stared out at readers for the better part of a thousand years.

The past usually feels so far away, and when you run into it, real and live — and funny — it can be exciting and oh-so-close. That’s what I’m hoping readers of Brother Hugo and the Bear will feel, too.

Brother Hugo at work

* The title of this post is an homage to medieval book historian Erik Kwakkel’s amazing tumblr, where he often writes about medieval scribes and illuminators. His post, “Medieval selfie,” features another illuminator/self-portrait artist, the red-headed Brother Rufillus. Erik re-blogged a post by Damien Kempf about our own Hugo pictor in 2013.

This post was originally published as “A Medieval Selfie” on EerdWord, March 13, 2014.

Making Medieval Ink

Making ink in Brother Hugo

If you’d like to make your own ink and write like Brother Hugo, here’s a recipe to help you to do just that!


  • 90 gm (about ½ C +2 tsp)         Oak galls, finely ground
  • 30 gm (about 3 Tbs)                   Vitriol (Ferric II Sulfate)     
  • 400 ml (about 1 ¾ C)                 Rainwater, or distilled water  
  • 3 Tbs                                             Red wine        
  • 10 gm (about 2 tsp)                   Gum Arabic, powdered 
  • A few drops                                 Clove oil


  • A mortar and pestle if you’re grinding your own oak galls
  • A scale to weigh your ingredients or measuring spoons & cups
  • A medium-sized ceramic bowl (such as a pudding basin or a ceramic mixing bowl)
  • An iron rod for stirring (more “medieval” – but a large metal spoon will work just as well)
  • Rubber gloves to keep your hands unstained
  • An apron to protect your clothes
  • Newsprint to protect your work surface
  • A small bottle and stopper for the finished ink

If you have trouble locating these materials, Abraxas sells complete “iron oak-gall ink” kits, which come with a packet of pulverized oak galls included.


Stir together 90 grams (about ½ Cup + 2 teaspoons) of powdered oak gall and 30 grams (about 3 Tablespoons) of powdered iron sulphate (vitriol / Ferric II Sulphate) in a ceramic bowl.

Add enough water to combine (about ½ Cup) and stir until well mixed. Stir in the rest of the water and the 3 Tablespoons of red wine.

Add the 10 grams (about 2 teaspoons) of gum arabic, and stir.  The gum arabic will help keep the granules of pigment suspended throughout the liquid.

Finally, place your ceramic bowl with the mixture in a quiet, warm place to ferment for a few days, stirring it often. (Once every hour should be fine, but there’s probably no need to get up in the middle of the night!)

After stirring and allowing the liquid to ferment for three or four days, pour your ink into a small bottle.  Add in a few drops of clove oil to the bottle as well.  Clove oil is a preservative, and it will help stop mold from growing.

Close your bottle with a stopper, and voilà! You have medieval ink!


˜ Here are some useful accounts from folks who have made their own ink, as well: ™

“Making Iron Gall Ink” by John Daniel at the blog, The Endless Swarm

The Iron Gall Ink Website

“Monastic ink: linking chemistry and history” at the website, Science in School


Finally, here is a small PDF booklet from the Special Collections Conservation Unit of the Preservation Department of Yale University Library. It offers a collection of ink and pigment recipes, both in the original Latin and translated into modern English, from the eleventh century to the late seventeenth century,

Medieval Manuscripts: some ink and pigment recipes

An Interview with Tomie dePaola

From Katy:  Tomie de Paola

When I was a senior at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, I co-wrote (with my best friend, who now edits wonderful children’s books, herself) an arts and literature column in our school newspaper. As part of that, I was thrilled to interview Tomie dePaola about writing and how he came to create children’s books. He also signed my favorite, read-to-pieces, childhood copy of his book, The Knight and the Dragon, which is a story about a knight, a dragon, and books. You can read the interview here:

Interview with Tomie dePaola in May 2000