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.
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.
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.