Writing with a quill is similar to, but not the same as writing with a metal pen. It takes a bit of time to get used to the pen being ‘featherlight’ and also to control the ink flow. As part of the preparations for the BBC TV Series Wolf Hall, I was asked to teach Mark Rylance, the actor playing Thomas Cromwell, how to write with a quill.
I got everything ready with some already cut quills that I trimmed in preparation, and also took along a couple of feathers because I thought it would help if Mark knew how the quill was cut from the feather to understand it all better.
Rehearsals were in south London, and I was due to do the teaching during the short lunch hour. I had about 10 minutes to get through what is often at least an hour. First I showed him how to write, and then he had a go on his own, realising that it’s similar to, but not the same as using a metal pen. Dealing with wet ink is also sometimes a problem.
Then I showed Mark how a quill was cut, and suggested he had a go himself with another feather. As with most people, he couldn’t quite comprehend how tough a swan’s feather can be, and I had to position his hands exactly (see my DVD) so that he could put maximum force into the first cut. For a beginner he made a very good job and then had a go at writing with it. Here he is with the quill he cut.
It wasn’t possible to teach him the historical writing style for documents in such a short space of time, so we left it at that, knowing that even if the camera didn’t pick up his writing the text, it will show him using a quill properly. I was also able to correct them on the use of a sander (that DVD again), and how to prepare the quills for use (ditto!). This is the writing on the day – some of it Mark’s and some mine.