Monday, October 24, 2016

Quills, Paper, and Ink

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.

Donald Jackson diagram, via RBS course

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


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:




Mold and deckle for handmade paper./ image
Paper in this period was not made of wood pulp like the modern paper of today. Paper was a composite of re-purposed rag (primarily linen) pulp, spread over a wire mesh mold, and pressed into sheets. Read more about the process here.

Rag paper is quite stable and so our Elizabeth I example is in very good shape, despite its age. 

If you look at this manuscript on a light table, you will notice the imprint of the latticework and the chain lines in the paper itself.



Once you have seen a quill to paper, it won’t take long to realize just how interconnected the form and function really are.  

Remember those funny letter combinations (or ligatures) we practiced in our first lesson? Now think back to your own experience with cursive or script?

Not only do the intertwined and looping letters minimize pen lifts and make for quicker, smoother writing, the structure of the quill and the process of ink distribution almost necessitate the ligatures and letter formations that evolve.

If you stop by the Washington's Headquarters unit, you can practice using a 
quill and witness the melding of form and function firsthand. Image Folger.


Barrett, Timothy. "European Papermaking Techniques 1300-1800." University of Iowa.

Blake, Erin. “Learning to “Read” Old Paper.”  The Collation. Accessed October 20, 2016.

Dou, Germit.  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)

“HOVV YOV OVGHT TO HOLD your penne.” (Image STC 6449.2 Bd.w.STC 3062) 

Jackson, Donald. Preparing a Quill. Rare Book School materials. English Paleography 1500-1700.

Leedham-Green, Elisabeth. English Handwriting 1500-1700: An Online Course.

Make a Real Feather Writing Quill. Accessed Octover 21, 2016.

Mold and Deckle for Handmade Paper (Image)

Traveling Scriptorium. Iron Gall Ink. Yale University Library.  Accessed Oct 24, 2016.

Wolfe, Heather. “Learning to Write the Alphabet.”  The Collation. Accessed October 18, 2016.


  • Understanding Regnal Years
  • Preservation 101: How Light and Humidity Impact Paper
  • The Cursive Learning Curve & Future Historians' Dilemma

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