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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Historic Writing Tools

I’m fascinated by writing implements, especially older ones in museums. In researching exactly what tools Adam, the poet/musician in my historical novel, The Tapestry Shop, would have used to write his music, I discovered some little known details about old writing methods. Reed pens, like these in their holders at the Louvre, were used on papyrus. Perhaps even more interesting were the cases, which held ink and a tiny sand box to use for blotting the ink. These cases were elaborately decorated, like this to the right, a 13th century writing case with astrological signs and Arabic letters. A scribe stored papers in the empty space.
Later, quill pens came into use. These were made from a flight feather, preferably a primary wing-feather) of a large bird. The hollow shaft acts as an ink reservoir, and because of the flexibility of a quill, it is still preferred by some calligraphers because of its sharp stroke, although now, with paper made from wood pulp, a quill wears down very quickly. For right-handed writers, a feather from the left wing works better because the feathers curve to the right, away from the hand. The feathers, I was pleased to discover, are discarded naturally by the birds during the moulting season. The quills used by medieval scribes bore little resemblance to the feathered quills romanticized in film and sketches. Instead, scribes usually trimmed the barbs or stripped them completely, as they were a nuisance.
An interesting aside on the subject, from the Supreme Court Historical Society: Each day that the U.S. Supreme Court is in session, 20 goose-quill pens, neatly crossed, are placed at the four counsel tables. Because most lawyers appear before the Court only once, they gladly take the quills home as souvenirs. The tradition dates back to the earliest Supreme Court session


catslady said...

That's very interesting and especially that the Supreme Court gives them out. I am old enough to remember desks that still had the holes to hold the ink. Luckily, not old enough to use them lol.

Joanna Waugh said...

Like you, Joyce, I'm fascinated by writing tools. Here's a link to a collection of 18th and 19th century writing instruments.