Writing in the past: the tools of our trade

 olmec_writing_wikicomWriting has been invented more than once on our small planet. The Olmecs of MesoAmerica were writing histories in stone by 900 BCE. Chinese characters, probably an independent invention, date from 1200 BCE. The ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia were writing more than mere accounting records in 3200 BCE. Our writing system derives from Sumerian cuneiforms. The ones we still have were made by pressing a shaped stylus into wet clay, baked to preserve the text — a most effective method of preservation!

The Greeks and Romans adapted Sumerian characters to their languages, adopting the tools along with the script. Living on the rocky uplands rather than muddy river flats, they chiseled their immortal words into stone. Lesser texts could be pressed into wax tablets which were easy to erase and re-use. Beeswax isn’t cheap, you know.

Paper and pens

Busy bureaucracies need to produce lots of documents, far more than can be stored on slabs of clay or stone, and empires must send documents far and wide. They need portable writing materials. The Egyptians thus invented paper, aka papyrus. They wrote on it with ink made from soot, dipped up with a reed pen. I love the way the tools derive from the landscape: sticks and mud, reeds and papyrus, chisels and marble slabs.

Time passes. Writing moves into monasteries, which are supported by farms. Now our landscape supplies goose quills and and lambskins. Reeds are still used into the sixth century, when Isidore of Seville wrote, “The tools of the scribe are the reed and the quill. By them, words are written on the pages of books.” But reeds don’t hold their points for very long.

The quill takes over from the seventh century to the late nineteenth, when metal nibs begin to be manufactured in quantity. Goose feathers were the favorites, having the most important qualities of a good pen: hardness, durability, and elasticity. The best feathers were those which moulted naturally — about 20 per year per bird — so they could be harvested without harm.

Parchment was another matter; alas, the sheep must die. At least they used every part of the beast.

German parchmenter, 1568. Wikimedia.
German parchmenter, 1568. Wikimedia.

The skin is limed (soaked in an alkali solution) and dried under tension, stretched on a frame. This makes a fine surface, which can be gently scraped to remove those ill-advised words. These materials overlapped, being used by different people for different purposes. Wikipedia says the oldest existing parchment document dates from the 25th century BCE, found in Egypt.

Pencils are invented in England in the 1570s, just in time for my characters to use them for jotting down notes whilst out intelligencing. A large deposit of graphite was discovered in Cumbria, so pure it could be sawed into handy marking sticks. (The Elizabethans expanded all forms of mining and mineral productions, in between prosecuting each other for deviant religious practices.) The graphite sticks were made even handier by setting them in wooden cases. Note that these would be useless on a mud tablet.

Quill management

My characters write with quills, although they only use parchment for formal documents. They buy paper at a stationer’s shop, which might have been made in the London area, although paper from the Continent was cheaper and better. Paper prices rose sharply in the 1580s and ‘90s. I don’t know why; perhaps because of the increased output of polemical pamphlets? Or the pesky armadas that kept interfering with trade?

A quill dresser acquires his stock of raw quills from the purveyor whose geese are up to snuff. He then strips them of their barbs (fluffy quills are a modern fantasy), trimmed, and hardened. Finlay describes the hardening process called ‘dutchifying’ which was adopted in England in the eighteenth century. An undutched quill won’t last as long or retain its flexibility. To dutch your quill, first place it in a moist cellar with the point touching the earth or wrap it for some hours in a damp cloth. Then make a hole in a glowing coal fire and insert the dampened quill carefully in the center for a couple of seconds. Then place it on a warm steel plate and draw it beneath a metal dutching hook to flatten it and remove the outer membrane and any traces of oily residue. Then pop it back into the fire for a moment to make it round again. Repeat until the barrel is smooth, clean, and hard — but not brittle.

Before dutchifying caught on, some people would process their quills by soaking them in water for a few hours and then plunging them into a bed of hot sand or ashes. The outer membrane and other undesirable bits were rubbed away with a bit of fish skin. Or you could skip the soaking and heating and just scrape it clean with your pen knife. Some writing masters disdained the artificial heating process, insisting that the only true method was the natural maturation process of time and use. Every aspect of human activity has its snobs and its pundits.

Gerrit_Dou_Scholar_sharpening_a_quill_pen_wikicomEvery schoolboy (and girl) had to learn to cut and trim his or her own pen, to keep the point sharp. Even so, a professional clerk might get through a pen a day. Francis Bacon must have bought them by the dozen. He probably had his assistants do the cleaning, although I can imagine him sitting by the fire with his quills and fish skin, thinking while he prepared his tools.

Quill pens survived into the twentieth century, thanks in part to their superior customizability. A skilled scribe could shape his quill to suit his own hand and his personal writing style. Enterprising Victorian stationers would shape whole boxes of quills to the customer’s preference: bespoke pens for the discriminating writer. Finlay found the last firm of quill-sellers in 1950: Barton, Gray, and Co., Ltd., of Mamora Street, East Dulwich. He found a listing for computer punch card systems in the same catalog.



Wikipedia, History of Writing. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_writing. Accessed 2015-03-18.

Finlay, Michael. 1990. Western Writing Implements in the Age of the Quill Pen. Carlisle, Cumbria: Plains Books.

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