Table of Contents
Main Sections
I. Function of Books
II. Book Production
      1. Parchment
      2. Papyrus 
      3. Paper 
      4. Ruling
      5. Pen 
      6. Ink 
      7. Gilding 
      8. Pigments 
      9. Bookbinding
III. Book Structure
IV. Typology of Books
V. Book Illumination
Back to the previous subchapter                II. Materials and Techniques of Manuscript    Production  Credits
5. Pen

Everyone is familiar with the image of the medieval scribe copying texts with a quill pen: it is quite correct. The inks were thicker and more glutinous than modern commercial ink, and there are numerous medieval recipes for their manufacture but there are almost no medieval instructions for the cutting of pens. All literate people evidently prepared their own pens and there was thus no merit in writing about how it was done. The cutting of a quill must have been entirely obvious and so familiar to every educated person from ancient Egypt to nineteenth-century England that it was not thought worthy of mention. The best feathers prove to be the five or so outer wing pinions of goose or swan. It is sometimes claimed that the microscopic scripts of the university scribes were made with crow or raven quills. This is technically quite possible but a small pen is difficult to hold, especially if writing a Bible a thousand pages long, and tiny script may after all be the result of a bigger quill cut to a finer tip. Turkeys, which produce excellent quills, are native to America and were unknown in medieval Europe.

For a right-handed scribe a quill which fits most comfortably into the hand has a slight natural curve to the right. This, then, comes from the left wing of the bird. First of all, the thin end and most of the barbs would be trimmed or peeled away and medieval pictures of scribes show simply the curved white barrel. Feathers freshly removed from the bird, or found on the beach, are too flexible and need hardening. They can either be left to dry out for some months or can be hardened artificially by soaking them in water and then plunging them for a few minutes into a tray of heated sand. The thin greasy outer skin and pith within the barrel can be scraped or rubbed away easily now. What remains is a tough and almost transparent tube. The tip is pared away on each flank with a short and sharp knife - a penknife - usually in a double step, very much into the shape of a fountain pen nib. Then it is cushioned in the hand (rather like the action of peeling a potato) and a slit is cut up the centre of the nib. Finally the pen is laid with its nib against a firm surface and the scribe pushes down with the blade of his knife across the extreme end, removing a fraction of a millimetre to produce an absolutely clean crisp squared-off tip.

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The medieval scribe doubtlessly prepared his pen at considerable speed and without great effort. The final cut across the tip has to be repeated quite often in the course of writing out a manuscript as the slit in the point will open up with use or with neglect.

John of Tilbury, one of the scholars in the household of  Thomas Becket in the twelfth century, describes how a clerk taking dictation would need to sharpen his pen so often that he had to have sixty or a hundred quills ready cut and sharpened in advance. The implication is that in the course of a day's work a busy scribe would sharpen his pen sixty times.

Medieval pictures of scribes in action are remarkably common, either as author portraits at the opening of their texts, or as part of the standard iconography of evangelists and of the Church Fathers in their study. Thus there are illustrations of people with pens from all periods of the Middle Ages.

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Especially in Books of Hours, which often open the section of Gospel Sequences with a miniature of St. John writing on the island of Patmos, we see the Saint peering at his pen, sharpening it (pulling the blade towards him, not away as we might sharpen a pencil), scraping it with a knife, licking it, writing with it, propping it behind his ear, and so forth, all intended to represent familiar homely activities of the manuscript maker.

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