Friday, 26 October 2012

The Reed Pen of Erasmus

A writing instrument is not only a tool of writing but it is itself written on - writes Sonja Neef in her Imprint and Trace: Handwriting in the Age of Technology.

A writing instrument is a tool, a device manufactured by historical processes of writing cultures, a representative of writing technologies. It is a tool of remembrance, it writes the past along with the future. A writing instrument describes a history written by it as it is a product of the history it describes.

Erasmus is portrayed by Hans Holbein the Elder holding a reed pen: “Erasmus’s calamus is a Janus-headed writing instrument. In a reverse direction it looks back to the ancient culture of writing, in a forwards direction it sets its sights on a future that is in the hands of writers to come.” Bequeathing his pen to Wilhelm Nesen, Erasmus wrote a poem in praise of the calamus (1516):

Little reed pen I am, I wrote so many
large volumes all by myself, though I was
guided by the finger joins of Erasmus.
The Nile produced me, Reuchlin gave me to
Erasmus, and now, honourably discharged,
I belong to Wilhelm. And he preserves me as
sacred to the Muses and dedicated to Apollo,
a dear token of eternal friendship, lest I, who
made so many names known to posterity,
names never to be wiped out in the long
course of time, should perish in obscurity.

“As a tool of remembrance Erasmus’s hand draws its trace of writing in both temporal directions, it blazes its trail for a journey through time and into the great Western archive that as it were writes the past along with the future - or: posterity."

From Sonja Neef, Imprint and Trace Handwriting in the Age of Technology, London (Reaktion Books) 2011: "The Calamus of Erasmus", pp. 81-83.


  1. Dear Lito,
    What a poetic and beautiful post! I have a fascination with Erasmus, but was unfamiliar with the text you quoted.... I'll look at my writing instruments as Janus-headed from mow on!
    Best regards,

  2. Thank You for sharing this wonderful sentiment.