Craft Fair: Early Medieval Calligraphy in the British Isles

While the book can be traced back to the second century AD, calligraphy did not come to the Anglo-Saxons until their conversion in the late sixth century. Calligraphy and book-making existed almost entirely in the ecclesiastical sphere, and we have no evidence for English books before the arrival of the Christians. However, manuscript writing had come to Ireland centuries earlier with the arrival of St. Patrick’s mission in the fifth century. The unique, geometric Celtic art style would be integrated into the Britons’ illuminated manuscripts, cultivating a unique illumination style known the Insular style. This style of illumination was used famously in the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Monks made their books out of parchment, pages made from the skins of animals, commonly those of cattle, sheep, and goats. The parchment-making process was very similar to the hide-making process; the skin would be soaked, scraped, treated with lime to get the fat out, and dried. Vellum was a fine and costly type of parchment, an extremely soft page made from calf skin. Since parchment was dependent on animal skin, bookmaking was an extremely expensive process in early medieval England; it has been argued that a single page of vellum would have been the product of 400 hectares (almost 1,000 acres) of land.

While no quills survive from Anglo-Saxon England, they were almost certainly used by scribes. Quills have been depicted in contemporary descriptions of early medieval scribes and alluded to in Anglo-Saxon riddles. Commonly a swan or goose feather, the quill was made by cutting out the fletching and outer tissue of the tube. Scribes would then carve the tip of the quill out of the front of the feather with a small knife and cut a small incision in the center of the nib for an ink font. Scribes are often depicted holding this naked quill in one hand and a knife in the other. The knife was very likely used to quill sharp over the course of the transcription.

Black ink would have been made by mixing charcoal with gum or alternatively by combining tannic acid, found in oak galls (those small, apple-like growths one can find on oak trees), with ferrous sulphate. Anglo-Saxon books were usually written in Old English or Latin, although monks occasionally wrote in Greek and Hebrew. The Old English alphabet was originally a runic system, but runes were gradually supplanted by a variation on the Latin alphabet in the ninth century.

I did not want to focus my recreation on book-making. As such, I used modern paper instead of parchment and my ink was store-bought, not handmade. My intent, rather, was to have the visitor try their hand at writing in Old English script with a quill. To do this, I printed and laminated two pages of the Beowulf manuscript, dating back to the 10th-11th centuries. This manuscript is in Latinized Old English, so it would allow visitors not only to try out medieval transcription, but also to do so in the vernacular language of the Anglo-Saxons.

I then made three quills out of goose and turkey feathers. To do this, I trimmed away the fluff near the bottom of the feather. I then made a diagonal incision at the base of the feather and scraped out the inner tissue. After this, I soaked the feathers overnight. This process makes them more malleable for the coming carving jobs. I next heated up sand in a pan over a stove and heated the tubes of the feathers in the sand. This hardens the edge, so that the feather won’t have to be constantly sharpened.

Finally, I made a longer diagonal cut along the grain at the base of the feather and carved down the sides of the tube so that I had a flat nib. Then I made a cut across the feather, giving the nib the flat shape of the tip of the quill. Lastly, I made a small cut down into the nib to make an ink well.

At the Fair
I set out these quills, the laminated pages, two bottles of ink, a penknife, and scrap paper out at my station. I also had three unmarked feathers and intended to demonstrate quill-carving at my booth. Many of my visitors were very happy writing with ink and quill. However, not very many tried their hand at copying the Beowulf manuscript. More wanted to write in modern English or runic script. However, it seemed that the chance to write with ink and quill enticed many visitors.


Cutting away the fluff.

Making the first diagonal cut.

Soaking the feathers.

Heating the feathers.

Making the longer cut.

Making the square cut.

Making the ink well.

The calligraphy booth.


Further Resources

For more information on book-, quill-, and ink-making:

Anglo-Saxon Crafts, by Kevin Leahy, pp. 89-93

On monastic life in Anglo-Saxon England:

Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400-1070, by Robin Fleming, Chapters 6 and 12, “Missionaries and Converts: The Later Sixth to Early Eighth Century” and “Clerics, Monks and the Laiety: The Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Centuries”

On quill-making:

An excellent tutorial on modern-day quill-making processes by the New York Public Library.