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Quills - Part 1: Broad Guidelines

Gundulfus holding forth on the correct way to ink a manuscript.
* Gundulfus holding a manuscript

Throughout our period various breeds of birds were used to supply different quills, including duck, goose, swan and pheasant. Having chosen your quill you will need to decide whether to strip the plume. The choice is yours as illustrations show them both plumed and stripped.

If you attempt to cut the quill it could well shatter, so before cutting immerse the tip into boiling water for a few seconds. This will give the quill the consistency of a finger nail.

You may now cut the nib, cutting  horizontally across the root. Clean out the matter within the quill, then make two diagonal cuts that come to an apex at the point. Carefully cut along the centre of the point for approx. 10mm. You can now chose the width of the nib by simply cutting it.

The overall length of the quill can now be cut down to a manageable size. Although manuscripts do show full length pheasant quills it was more common for a cut down version to be used (A face full of feather can be too distracting !).

Never overload the amount of ink on your quill and attempt to have only enough to complete three letters at a time. Be slow and patient, if you wish to make a quick written record use a diptych.

Even if you thoroughly clean each quill after use I recommend you use separate quills for different coloured inks.

Errors in text or spelling can be corrected by either GENTLY scrapping the ink from the surface then writing over or by under-lining the error with a thin red line which indicates a mistake. Do not confuse this use of red with the practice of using red ink for each initial letter of God, Christos or Iesus.

The illuminated capitals are outlined in ink then painted in using fine brushes. These brushes could be of boar, horse-hair, goat and even imported camel-hair.

* Close-up of the psalter
A modest example of one of the brothers efforts.

Although vellum is the correct material to write on I advise practise on fairly rough paper used for water colours before proceeding to vellum.

Editors note:

Having had to recently copy a page of the Doomsday book (May 1999), I was given the reluctant pleasure of having to actually write with a quill I trimmed myself on real vellum - all at the expense of the production company. Vellum, traditionally made from calf skin as opposed to parchment which is made from goat or sheep skin, is very expensive. A single sheet of less than A4 in size costs 40. Having tried a few tiny marks on the vellum, I was able with a sharp blade to scrape them off without leaving a really scuffed porous surface. One characteristic that surprised me was that the vellum is fairly translucent, and a light box magnified this trait  greatly. It is also prone to absorbing any sweat or grease from your fingertips, so do wash them thoroughly prior to writing, and the final aspect is that even if it arrives in your hands flat, the slightest damp air will cause it to buckle and bow overnight. This however can be rectified by pressing it and drying it at the same time.

No matter how finely I tried to hone my quills, I could not get the finesse that the original hand had executed in the Doomsday work. It is said that the Doomsday Book was written by one compiler, and executed in a 'rushed' hand. My quill point was so fine that it was no longer stiff enough to write with, so I had to shorten it, fairly imperceptibly that is, to firm up the tip, writing in 'bold' rather than 'medium' weight text. It is very much a case of getting into the swing of things, with a rhythm. When I dipped the quill into the ink pot, it became habit to shake off the excess ink and still wipe the tip of the quill on the edge of the pot to remove any further 'drools' of ink. This I found was enough to write perhaps seven or so letters that were three millimetres high.

A set of dividers with reasonably sharp points to mark out the line spacing is handy, and a scribe to score in the lines lightly across the page and margins with a ruler will ensure that your text doesn't wander too much. Don't rush as the ink will take some minutes to set, and place a sheet of paper between your wrist and the vellum to protect it from sweat etc. Other than that, happy scratching.


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