I should be grading, but since I’ve been browsing blogs for the past hour and some, I’m giving in . . . maybe writing my own post will provide a transition to getting back to work.

At Large Regional U, we don’t get fall break. Since it’s a long haul from Labor Day to Thanksgiving, I wanted to build in some sort of break around mid-semester. However, because of Labor Day and Thanksgiving, there’s one less week of instruction in the fall (at least if you teach MWF) than in the spring. So the “break”had to include some serious course content.

Since I mainly teach texts written before the age of print, I arranged a week of Medieval Writing. We started with a movie about manuscripts, then had a day of writing with quill pens, and ended with transcription from medieval facsimiles. I didn’t make a serious attempt at teaching paleography, but on Quill Day I gave out handouts with Gothic Book Hand alphabets for students to try to copy, thinking that that would be some preparation for transcription. Many of my students found it inadequate preparation (but I didn’t grade their attempts; I just wanted them to have some experience reading a manuscript hand, rather than a tidy printed edition). I haven’t had this reaction on previous uses of this assignment, when the goal was to produce an edition of 10 or so lines; there may be some shift in attitude depending on whether students are working toward a grade or not. They were encouraged to work in groups.

I prepared all the quill pens myself. While I believe you can buy pens, I was not up for the expense of supplying commercial pens for both my medieval classes. (Of course LRU isn’t going to help with such an expense; there have been years when faculty didn’t even get printer paper, though I’m glad to say things have been better lately.) Originally I hoped to cut enough to let each student take a quill home as a souvenir, but I delayed too long in starting the project and had to settle for re-using the same set of pens in each class.

I’d cut a few quills before, but some time ago, and didn’t really have a sense of how much time and effort it would take. It wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, but my hands were tired by the end.

I relied on these two sites for instructions: Liralen, and Regia Anglorum. They are both helpful. However, I have some commentary on my experience . . . partly because I am the sort of person who wants both clear, simple instructions AND an explanation for why you do it this way. I found out the hard way why you should follow instructions. Oh well.

I bought cheap dyed feathers from a craft store. To save time, I didn’t strip the shafts (also I thought students might enjoy the Romantic Experience of writing with a colored plume, which they did. Some of them trimmed the plumy bits off themselves, in class).

Since I wanted to be able to re-use the pens, I went whole hog in tempering them: soaking first, then heating.

Neither last time nor this time was I able to make any headway with a knife. This may be because I’m a bit shy of knives, or because my hands are weak, or because (due to the first two), my technique is lousy. The mini-scissors on my Swiss Army Knife worked great, though. I need to get them sharpened before the next time I do this.

Here’s the step-by-step process–see Liralen’s page for pictures:

1. Soak your feathers overnight in water. Keep out of reach of cats.

2. While they are soft, make the initial cut, at an angle, on the opposite side of where you will finally want the nib to be (this is Liralen’s step 3, “opening the tube”). You do it this way in order to facilitate making the split in the part of the shaft that will become the nib. You need to be able to press against the rest of the shaft to get the recessed part of the shaft to split.

3. Strip out as much of the junk inside the shaft as you can. A crochet hook, knitting needle, and toothpicks can all be useful here. It’s good to do this while the tube is soft so it’s less likely to split while you mess around inside it.

4. Heat-temper the quills in hot sand. Clumping kitty litter works fine, though of course you’ll get some little clumps where the wet quills hit the litter. This also helps get out the last bits of interior stuff when you brush off the litter or sand. I poured kitty litter into empty soup cans and heated them in the oven for 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Then I took the cans out and stuck feathers in them. Again, keep out of reach of cats.

5. When the sand has cooled, rescue your feathers and start the hard part. The shafts are now much harder than when you started. Take a sharp knife (this is the only part I did with a knife), rest its back on the sticking-out not-nib piece of shaft, and press up with the sharp edge against the recessed part of the shaft till it splits a little way up.

6. Shape the nib. From here, directions from Liralen and Regia Anglorum are quite clear. I found this much easier with the little scissors, which allowed me to cut the nib shape I wanted relatively easily. I felt like it was cheating, but I needed at least 40 quill pens by the next day, so authenticity went out the window.

Someday I’d like to take a workshop that would teach me how to do this properly. Also how to make ink from oak galls and other authentic medieval ingredients. Also how to cut nibs at different angles to suit different scripts. But my focus this semester was just on getting some pens for my students. In an ideal world, they’d make their own pens, but 2 classes of students wielding knives, in the current campus climate? Not happening.

The full tempering process made it easy–maybe too easy–to get a very narrow nib, good for writing a smallish, even hand, like that in Hengwrt or Ellesmere (not so small as the 13th-c Bibles that are so ubiquitous that even I have a fragment of one). I didn’t have time to experiment with different angles and so on, though I wish I had done, because my students were interested in how you got heavier lines, hairlines, and decorative effects, and the pens I cut were not so good for those things.

I bought ink, too. Calligraphy ink can get pricy, so I didn’t get individual bottles, but decanted ink into plastic glasses from a party store. I had some colored ink, too. I suggested that students practice a bit on newspaper or lined paper, and then take some better paper and try making a greeting card or sign of some sort, which they could then decorate with flowers or whatever in the colored ink. Some did this. Some just played around, I think, but that was okay with me. I played medieval lyrics in the background while they worked, and considered the whole week as an opportunity to take a break from heavy reading and writing assignments, to do something hands-on rather than abstract, and to get a little insight into the material conditions of some aspects of life in the Middle Ages.

We did this in week 9 (or was it 8?) of a 15-week semester, and a couple of my students went out of their way to thank me for the break, which came at a time they really needed some respite–“Listening to music and writing with quills was sort of meditative and really nice.” Others said they learned from the experience how hard a medieval scribe’s life was, and that it was hard to be a writer in the Middle Ages: you didn’t just have to think up the stories, you also had to go to considerable effort to write them down. Nobody complained–at least not yet–that it was busy-work or kindergartenish; that may turn up on the course evaluations, though I’m hoping not. I kept saying that you can read all you like (or see all the movies you want) about paleography, and manuscripts, and so on, but there’s no substitute for hands-on experience with medieval writing techniques. I think they got it; and being English majors, they don’t get such a lot of hands-on experience in most of their classes, so it made a nice change.

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8 thoughts on “Quills

  1. Wow, what a fantastic idea! As you know, I’ve been thinking about ways to get students closer to thinking about textuality and this sounds like a great way. I’ve also had them make miscellanies/commonplace books with modern materials — composition notebooks and pens — and then had them trade their books with another student, who either added to it, doodle in it, or did what they wanted with it. And then we mixed up the books and traced ‘scribes’ and ‘owners.’

  2. These activities sound like so much fun! (In a scholarly way, of course.) Maybe someday I’ll try incorporating them myself – it’s a little different in a history class, but it would still make sense.And I so know what you mean about needing that break in the middle of the semester!

  3. Did you see the recent post at Blogging the Renaissance on making ink from an Early Modern recipe? I imagine that the ingredients differ at least somewhat, but it was an interesting discussion along the same lines.

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