Writing gets medieval

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Before I traded the uncertain existence of a career in academia for the uncertain existence of a career as a freelance writer, I spent a year in Cambridge getting a master’s in medieval literature. One of the perks of studying in England is that there are a lot of old manuscripts lying around, and included in my coursework that year was a class on paleography”the study of handwriting.

So we learned about the different hands that were used (Secretary, Anglicana, Textura), letters like thorn (th, and, thanks to an alternate form that looks a lot like a Y, the source of the misguided ye olde that graces so many would-be shoppes) and yogh (a sort of guttural g), and the crazy abbreviations that were used to make the task of copying a long manuscript a little easier.

One of the things that stuck with me is the fact that scribes would often add their own personal notes to the end of a manuscript. Most would simply say: This manuscript was completed on such-and-such a date by so-and-so, humble scribe, but some would append things like: who, God willing, is now headed to the pub for a drink. Some scribes would complain about how poor they were; others might make little drawings.

At any rate, when I first took J. Herbin’s medieval writing set for a test drive, I began to sorely sympathize with those scribes!

Included in the set are a blue goose quill whose sharpened tip serves as a nib, a bottle of blue ink, and a sheet of parchment that, in a concession to modernity, is made from paper, not goat skin. (I saw another concession to modernity in a set at the Stationery Show, in which the quill tip had been replaced with an easier-to-use stainless steel nib–alas, I didn’t get a picture.)

Either way, a feather is not the most ergonomic writing tool out there. The shaft is narrower than most pencils and pens, which takes some getting used to. (I found I tended to clutch it more tightly than was comfortable, though that’s probably partly a function of the fact that I balance writing instruments on my ring finger, not my middle finger.) You also end up having to rest part of the feather against your hand and messing up the vane.

But the killer for me was the fact that, unlike a glass pen, a feather only writes a word or two before you have to re-dip, and the line is VERY splattery and hard to control:


It is plenty of fun, however, and would probably make a good gift someone who’s historically minded. Karen tells me there’s a community of feather pen enthusiasts who do more hard-core quill sharpening and customization, but I’m personally inclined to use this as an occasional plaything and be glad I was born when I was.

UPDATE: Here are some close-ups I took of the nib–again, this isn’t the most sophisticated quill (I gather from the Internet that many people cut their nibs in a curved, fountain pen-like fashion), but the idea is the same. There’s also a tiny slit at the tip that didn’t come through in the photos… At any rate, click through to see the larger versions.



9 thoughts on “Writing gets medieval

  1. Quick note: Stationery (with an E) is the spelling that refers to writing materials, and Stationary (with an A) is the characteristic of staying in place (stationary bicycle). Just thought this would be an important distinction to point out for this particular website!

  2. Of this type of stuff, I really want to try the egyptian reed stylus. And possibly the funky thing used to make cuneiform triangles. Both should be a lot of fun to use, or at least have. It means doubly to me, because I’m studying anthropology, possibly with a concentration in writing…
    I remember using a goosefeather quill once, and it bled and spotted and the ink took forever to dry, so I smeared it(lefty here), but it might be time to try again…

  3. Glad you liked it Tejal! It was fun for me to go back and re-learn those things, too…

    I’m definitely not handy enough with a knife to make a quill pen myself, but if you do, Tom, please let us know about it.

  4. Goodness, and I have dozen or so goose feathers waiting to be turned into quills. (I live across from a large pond and we have lots of geese and spare goose parts.)

  5. What I found most interesting about this post was the information provided about paleography — I love studying/learning about linguistics, the older the better! 🙂

  6. I agree it’s hard to see, Carys… but there is definitely a nib-shaped tip, and maybe an inch and a half or so above that to hold on to. I’ll see if I can’t dig up another photo, or else take a picture of the one I have.

  7. I keep looking at the picture of the kit, and it sure looks as though they just packaged a plain feather rather than a quill.

    (Quills usually have the feather part stripped back a ways so you aren’t trying to hold on where they are, and the tip is cut into a shape very like a fountain pen nib, traditionally with a penknife. I have a tiny penknife that was my grandfather’s, although I doubt he ever made his own quill pens.)

  8. I’m so glad you posted this, Leah! I think even though the feather quills are impractical for writing, they are gorgeous and a unique addition to desk decor.

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