Monday, 20 April 2015

Torrents of ink, tons of parchment, and flocks of quills

St Dunstan at work, England ca 1170-1180. Source: British Library
The Norman conquest of England brought with it an astonishing proliferation of written records. Tens of thousands of documents survive from the 12th and 13th centuries while it is estimated that as many as 8 million charters may have been produced. Think of the amounts of ink, parchment and quills that this production of written records required. As early as 1199 chancery clerks had to keep copies of important letters and that increased the requirements for parchment and ink. Sealing wax was in high demand too as parchments had to be sealed and even serfs were required to have a seal. By the 1260s the chancery was going through some 14kg of sealing wax per week!

English deed written on parchment 1638. Source Wikipedia Commons
More hands were needed to make ink and it wasn't easy to make ink. Oak galls had to be soaked in water to produce tannin. Copperas (that is iron sulfate, or iron vitriol) and gum arabic had to be added to the mix which had to be stirred often over a two week period. The ingredients didn't come easy either. Oak galls (or oak apples) had to be picked when ready. Copperas had to be imported from monopolistic Papal sources in Europe and the prices became so high that Elizabeth I finally resolved to buy locally. The first time copperas were produced in England on a large scale was around 1564 in Poole. Gum arabic, the hardened sap of the Acacia senegal tree which was used as pigment binder, was also an import. It was collected from Nubia, exported to Egypt and found its way to the hands of English scribes.

With the rising demand for parchment, more animals must have been brought to slaughter for their precious skin and more feathers needed to be extracted from birds to make quills. Parchment making was a slow and arduous process. It involved selection of good skins (that is, skins from healthy animals), which were then washed, dried, soaked in lime, scraped, stretched and scraped and stretched again and again until the finished product was ready for use as a writing surface. 

Scholar sharpening a quill, Netherland 1630-5. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Quills, the main writing instruments until well into the 19th century, were made by removing feathers from a live bird, usually goose or swan (12th century writer Theophilus said that the five outer pinions of a goose wing made the best pens), drying them naturally or soaking them in water and then dipping them in hot sand. The feathers were then cut to the desired shape with a knife. According to John of Tilbury, a 12th century scholar in the household of Thomas Becket, "a clerk taking dictation would need to sharpen his pen so often that he had to have 60 or 100 quills ready cut and sharpened in advance."

The cheap, clean and disposable writing materials and writing surfaces that are readily available in 21st century western societies have allowed us to perceive the writing process as a purely cerebral affair devoid of materiality. The writing instrument has become almost invisible as its materiality is obliterated by its disposable nature and wide availability. Electronic writing has even removed the very need for a writing instrument and have us revert to the most primitive instrument of all: the human finger. The ink is encased in hidden tubes and cartridges. No blood and guts are involved in the making of paper whose use is gradually eroded. 

In the end we focus on the materiality of writing more in the context of academic thinking than as part of daily exigency. Those who would cringe at the slaughter of an animal for paper and the plucking of a goose for quills are oblivious to the virtual blood and guts required for the making of their writing tablets of choice in far away countries by other people's children.






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