Goose Quills & Iron Gall Ink

Heather Wolfe’s paleography course last month gave us a feel not just for reading during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but the act of writing itself. Equipped with goose quills and ink prepared by the wizards at the Folger, we learned that writing secretary hand was at least as difficult as reading it, and that, as now, the tools used could make a world of difference. Queen Elizabeth preferred to write with swan feathers, each of which reputedly outlasted dozens of goose quills. Iron gall ink of the sort that we used was made using oak galls, gum arabic and either copper sulphate or ferrous sulphate — a chymical recipe in which tannic acid reacts with an iron ion source.

Here, no less an authority than the queen’s own calligrapher, Donald Jackson, demonstrates how to prepare both quill and ink for his work on the handwritten, illuminated Saint John’s Bible.

As an expert, Jackson makes it look easy. The ten-step process for the quill, he says, should take a total of 38 seconds “when reasonably skilled.” Let’s look a bit more closely at those stages.

  1. Cut off the end of the quill barrel.
  2. Soak in water.
  3. Remove surplus water.
  4. Remove internal membrane.
  5. Prime with hot sand.
  6. Insert in heated sand.
  7. Inspect result.
  8. Re-insert if necessary.
  9. Empty sand, scrape off the membrane and mould the barrel if necessary.
  10. Test for consistency when cooled.

(I think it would take quite a while to become reasonably skilled in this particular art.)

The afternoon filled with little revelations as we turned from keyboards to makeshift miniature drafting tables and tried to replicate stroke order. I hadn’t known that the feathers were removed from the quill before use and couldn’t bear to strip mine, instead watching a classmate tear the vane from his rachis, barbs linking each dirty white strand to the next so they fell onto the floor in clumps.

Some of the lessons were more opaque, as in this instructional etching from a 1611 handwriting manual in the Folger’s holdings:


New booke, containing all sortes of handes usually written at this daie (1611), fo. 3r, STC 6449.2 Bd.w. STC 3062, Digital Image File Name 3070, Folger Digital Image Collection. http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/2q7l71

That same text includes a handy rhyme for making one’s own ink:

To make common Inke of wine take a quart
Two ounces of Gumme let that be a part,
Fiue ounces of Gals, of Copres take three,
Long standing doth make it the better to be.
If wine ye do want, raine water is best,
And then as much stuffe as aboue at the least.
If Inke be too thicke, put vineger in:
For water doth make the colour more dim.

We also learned that it’s most effective to write at a thirty-degree angle — another challenge for the two lefties in the group already accustomed to graphite- and ink-stained fingers. This is why I prefer to type! My initial efforts produced a messy blob, and for a while I managed only three letters with each dip into the inkwell: the first with an excess of ink, the third drying up, and only the second in every batch just about right. It was all very Goldilocks.

Reporters from the local paper dropped by the next day asking to see the quills in action. Here’s my brief moment of background fame, just the way I like it.


Learning to write with a quill pen at the Rare Book Summer School at the University of Otago yesterday are Sienna Latham, of Wellington, and Yu Lee An, of Sydney. Photo by Linda Robertson. Source: Otago Daily Times, 31 January 2013

Links and references

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