Tag Archives: feathers

How Mediæval Manuscripts were Made

fcdcf8be-d41f-4954-b06e-603091f607c1It really was a great joy and privilege to be part of the great Polonsky Project, which was a joint venture between the British Library and the Bibliotèque nationale in Paris to digitise manuscripts which from before the year 1100. They were keen to show how those manuscripts were made, and so it was on two very hot days in the summer of 2017 that Dr Alison Ray, filmer Jan and I spent many hours recording those processes. The films are now on the British Library’s and the Bibliotèque nationale’s websites (the latter being dubbed into French) and sections of the films were also used in the fantastic 2017–2018 Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library.

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 18.53.31The first film features the pen used for the writing, which, of course, was usually a quill cut from the feather of a large bird. I always use penknives which have curved blades as the curve rolls over the slight curve in the barrel of a feather to cut the nib tip, whereas a straight blade tends to squash the feather. Indeed, penknives today (the clue is in the name!) still always have a curved blade. Here’s the link. There’s more on quill knives and how to cut a quill on my website on this link.

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 19.05.35Ink was usually made from oak galls, although in fact peach, cherry and apricot stones can also be used but give a less dense colour. It’s the tannic acid from the galls reacting to copperas (iron sulphate) that creates a dark liquid, and which needs an adhesive, in this case gum Arabic, to ensure that it adheres to the writing surface. To see the process, click here.

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 19.07.32The writing surface was vellum or parchment – calfskin, sheepskin, goatskin or ever deer on occasion. In this clip I explain about the differences between the hair and flesh sides of vellum and also the qualities of other types of skin. More here.


Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 19.10.21Having cut pieces of skin to size for writing, the page needed to be set out, and often dividers – similar to sets of compasses, but with a point at the end of each leg – were used as it was easier to mark the exact positions of the guidelines in this way. On occasion, the lines would be set out using a ruler and lead point (or similar) and then the positions marked using the tip of a knife (perhaps a penknife). Here the ‘point’ would actually be a triangle shape and this can be seen in some manuscripts. There’s more on setting out a manuscript page here.

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 19.17.54Pigments used in illuminations came from animal, vegetable and mineral sources. Perhaps the most famous is ultramarine, as Cennini Cennino called it ‘perfect, beyond all other colours’. A very similar blue, but much cheaper was citramarine. Woad and indigo are from vegetable sources along with madder. And Tyrian purple and carmine came from animals. There’s more on this link, including dragon’s blood!

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 19.22.01 1These pigments have no natural adhesive (apart from saffron interestingly!) and so this needs to be added. Traditional either glair, the egg white or the egg yolk was added. This film clip explains the process, including the equivalent of a hole in one! It can be tricky removing the egg yolk from the egg sac, but when this was being filmed, it worked with the very first egg! Here it is with the knife being withdrawn and the yolk falling out at the bottom. See the whole thing and more here.

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 19.26.13And having got everything ready, it was then only the setting out the illumination, laying the gesso, applying gold and then painting bringing everything to life and with wonderful colour. Watch the process here.

It is hoped that these short films will add to the knowledge and understanding of these historical craft processes and ensure that more people understand and appreciate the skills that went in to creating the wonderful manuscripts now in great collections such as those at the British Library and the Bibliotèque nationale.

Quills and Quill Knives

Image-1An unusual quill knife in a manuscript image on Twitter made me look again at quill knives. This one had the necessary curved blade (don’t get me started on straight edges for cutting quills!) but a strange curved hook shape which seems to end in a point. I’ve really thought about why this shape of knife was developed and can’t see any real advantages for it over what I would call a ‘normal’ quill knife as below. It would be really difficult to sharpen that inner curved edge, so what would a dull inner curved blade be used for. Has anyone got any suggestions?



IMG_0101This is a trusty quill knife which I use when being filmed cutting quills. The shape of the handle sits really well in the hand, but for me the blade is rather too long and the lower part of the blade (the bolster or shank) should have been inserted more into the handle for better control. The blade is of steel, but not stainless steel, so there is some rust. Some years ago I was told that it wasn’t possible to get a good sharp edge on stainless steel, but according to Robin Wood MBE, who knows a thing or two about blades, modern stainless steels are much improved and these are what he uses for his tools and axes so they must be good.

IMG_0642So what’s important about a quill knife? First that it has a good handle that sits well and is comfortable in the hand; it is also important that it is substantial. I teach quill cutting as part of some of my Calligraphy courses, and in the three-day Painting a Mediæval Miniature course I run at the end of May each year. For these I use X-Acto knives (see image) which have good solid handles. They are sold with a pointed blade, but I buy curved blades and replace the pointed blade with these. In my opinion it is easier to replace a curved blade when it dulls for quill cutting than sharpening 16 knives! (And the blades aren’t wasted as they are then used for scraping mistakes from vellum, and then for cutting vellum and paper. And at the very end of their life, they’re used to sharpen pencils!). I would never cut quills with scalpels because the barrel of a quill is tough and a scalpel can so easily turn in the hand; having control of a razor sharp blade is paramount in my opinion!

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

Then the blade itself. First it needs to be reasonably short. There is strength in a more stubby blade that isn’t there in a longer, perhaps more flexible blade. And because cutting a quill requires only a short section of the blade, a knife with a longer blade where the whole edge slices isn’t necessary.

CIMG2507So how to cut a quill? If you want to see how it’s done then it’s all explained in my Illumination book and associated DVD (see here for details). The feathers used are the first five flight feathers of large birds. The differences between the first five flight feathers are explained in the book and DVD.





CIMG0977Once the feather is hardened, it is prepared and the nib then shaped.The first step here is making the long scoop cut.




CIMG0985Then the sides of the nib are shaped.





CIMG0991The long tip is trimmed to a manageable length.






CIMG1205And finally the end of the nib is shaped to make a quill that writes.



Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

All modern pen knives – and the clue is in the name – have a curved blade. I’m not getting into ‘quill knife wars’, but every part of logic leads to the blade being curved so that it can ‘rock’ over the similarly curved end of the barrel of the feather when trimming the nib tip without splitting it. I do appreciate that there are those who swear by a straight blade, and these are sold on many websites, but it’s a curve for me and my students!



Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

The images of historical quill knives have kindly been provided by Alan Cole of the University of London’s Museum of Writing to whom I am very grateful.






A Chronology of the Penknife (Finlay, 1990)There is an excellent pictorial history of the shapes of pen knives from the early 8th century to 1698 produced by Michael Finlay in ‘Western Writing Implements in the Age of the Quill Pen’ (Carlisle, UK, Plains Books, 1990) and reproduced here. (Thank you to Alexander Devine of the Parker Library for kindly sending this to me.)





So what would an ideal quill knife look like? For me it would have a short, slim, razor-sharp curved blade (the curve being on the outer edge of the blade), the blade should be inserted well into the handle, and that handle have a heft that sits well in the hand. An additional refinement for me would be the insertion somewhere on the handle of a crochet hook, perhaps pulling out in a way similar to a modern pen knife attachment. The crochet hook catches on to the membrane inside the barrel of the feather and is used to pull the membrane out. If the membrane isn’t removed it gets in the way of writing the letter-forms.

IMG_0644Classes of children were often large in the past, and until machine-made pen nibs were adopted in schools in the 19th century, one of the tedious jobs of a school teacher was to cut and trim the quills of the pupils in their classes. With often more than 40 students per class, a great deal of time would be attending to pens. What a boon it must have been when the quill cutter was invented, however, these were used almost invariably to cut a feather tip only into a point for Copperplate-type writing, To write letter-forms shaped by a broad-edged nib, it was back to the quill knife. This is a quill cutter with a curved blade to trim the quill, and then the part that cuts the quill and makes the slit is at the top.


Writing with a quill is magical – it is, literally, feather-light – and it becomes almost an extension of the arm. The downside, of course, is that the quill needs to be trimmed about every paragraph, and then recut eventually.