We have spent some time decoding and transcribing English Secretary hand and today we are going to take a closer look at the materials used to create those letter forms.
Enter the quill, ink, and laid paper.
In 1576, scribes were utilizing writing tools made from the flight feathers of birds like geese and swans. The hollow barrels of these natural pens were the perfect vessels for delivering ink to paper.
|Alphabet sampler, English Secretary hand/ image Sarah Minegar.|
If you have ever watched a period film, you have probably seen an inaccurate portrayal of a quill, boasting an enormous plume. In reality, a quill wouldn't be so usable with all of its barbs intact; especially those adorned with downy lower barbs which would surely impact writing ability.
Instead, a scribe would strip the barbs and cut the shaft to a reasonable length (more like a modern day pen). Next, he would prepare the utensil for use as a writing device.
Gerrit Dou, Scholar Sharpening a Quill, ca. 1630–35, oil on panel,
25 x 20.5 cm, oval, signed, center right, under quill, “GD” (GD in ligature).
The Leiden Collection, New York, GD-104/ image http://www.jhna.org/
If one had to be patient in making their writing tools, one also had to be patient in preparing their inks. The most commonly used ink from the middle ages to the nineteenth century was iron gall ink, a combination of oak galls, iron sulfate, and gum arabic.
Iron gall ink is rather acidic and often compromises the paper it touches. Etching or transference often occurs in areas where this ink was applied heavily to paper. Check out the ink recipe below.
Commonplace book, Late 17th Century, Osborn b115 (59r-58v)
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library/
To read more about inks and the ink making process: