Sharpen that quill

Sharpen that quill
Penmanship theory and the handwritten practice
12 April 2017

How long has it been since you received a handwritten letter or document? Not just a birthday card or a postcard scribbled in haste, but something more substantial. Reading a handwritten document seems to encourage taking more time to peruse and absorb it (and sometimes decipher it). It is much more personal, conveying a sense of the individual and their feelings in a way that a typewritten or texted message cannot.

Until the advent of the typewriter, when handwritten documents and letters were the means of both personal and business communication, it is no surprise that considerable time and effort was devoted to teaching handwriting and that preferred styles were developed to aid legibility and demonstrate the proficiency of the writer.

While numerous styles of writing became popular in Europe over the ages, often with particular regional variations, the dominant form from the 8th to the 15th century was the Carolingian miniscule script created partly under the patronage of the Emperor Charlemagne (hence the name).

Example of Carolingian script

Example of Carolingian script from Gospel Book, British Library, MS Add. 11848

By the early 16th century the script known in Italy as cancellaresca (“chancery” often called italic), had become the most common for both book and letter writing among scribes, scholars, and the educated throughout Europe. It was tolerant of different writing speeds and pen nibs, and was achievable by the novice yet still had an attractive appearance suitable for the more adept. Even Queen Elizabeth I of England wrote in a lovely chancery style - what Shakespeare referred to as the “sweet Roman hand.” Twelfth Night -- Act iii, Sc. 4. 

Letter from Elizabeth I

Letter written by Elizabeth I to her half-brother Edward VI around 1553 from the British Library

Contrast this with a letter written by her father Henry VIII to Cardinal Wolsey in 1518. A much scrappier hand!

Letter from Henry VIII

Letter from Henry VIII to Cardinal Wolsey, British Library

No European manuals on the practice of writing are known to have existed before about the 15th century. From the 16th-18th centuries two types of writing books predominated in Europe: the writing manual, with detailed instructions on how to make, space, and join letters, and sometimes how to choose paper, cut quills, and make ink; and the copybook, which consisted of pages of writing examples to be copied as practice. Ludovico degli Arrighi published the first practical manual on writing chancery script in 1522 titled La Operina. In 1524 the Venetian writing master Giovanantonio Tagliente published Lo presente libro insegna la vera arte… (“This Book Teaches the True Art…”). Both books were printed from woodcuts that reproduced the writing of their authors, and promised results without the aid of a teacher.

Juan de Yciar (ca. 1520-1590) was the first in Spain to publish a copybook, although his could actually be called a hybrid copybook and writing manual because it really included elements of both. He was a Basque painter and mathematician and the most important calligrapher of the Spanish Renaissance. In 1548, he published the Recopilacion subtilissima (“Most Delicate Compilation”). Two years later he published his Arte subtilissima (“The Most Delicate Art”). This manual/copybook showed a variety of formal and informal hands and decorative alphabets in different styles, including chancery as well as gothic and other scripts, plus advice for both teachers and students.

Page from Arte sublissima

Page from the Arte Subtilissima,

Page from the Arte Subtilissima

Page from the Arte Subtilissima,

The Library holds a lovely facsimile edition of this work which includes a very helpful complete translation of the Spanish text into English.

There is a detailed section on the instruments necessary for a good scribe, including information on how to recognise a good ink, recipes for various sorts of inks, how to identify good paper, the qualities of the penknife (the name naturally coming from the fact that it was used to trim the pen), how to make a good ruler, how to select and cut the quill (goose or swan were the favoured feathers), and how the pen should be held in the hand. The section on the ruler is fascinating. A nifty way of getting straight lines on the page without making pencil lines by using lute strings:

“Take a board of beech or walnut and cut upon it as many equidistant straight groves as you wish to give lines on the paper, and in each lay a fine lute string, fixing it down with glue. Lay the paper on top of this ruler, so that it lies square to the strings. Then holding it so that it does not move out of place, rub it from above with a cloth until the lute strings make a mark on the paper which emerges rules as in a mould. This saves one from drawing lines with lead.”

Perhaps a good method of recycling those broken lute strings that you didn’t know what to do with! The strings were made of animal gut, usually from the small intestine of sheep.

I was also intrigued to find in the section on inks that if you have a “thick and sticky” ink then Yciar says care must be taken with the thinner. He cautions against the practice of the “misled” in adding vinegar or red wine because of the similarity with the colour of the ink. He says that if the ink was cured with white wine, that is what should be used as a thinner, and if made with water, then an alkali (presumably vinegar) should be used. How does one tell? I have a disturbing mental picture of people sipping their gluggy ink to try and determine its composition!

It is interesting that professional calligraphers did not avoid or decry print. In fact, printing was embraced by many writing masters as a way of spreading both the art of writing and their own reputation. Several 16th-century scribes, including Arrighi and Tagliente, even designed typefaces for printers. Thus, although printing may have put an end to the medieval scriptorium, in a sense it also launched the era of the professional writing master.

Despite copybooks, writing manuals and the instruction provided by teachers to their students up to the present day, it seems we all very quickly diverge from the “standard” style and develop our own peculiar, distinctive (and variously legible) writing styles. In the days when all official documents were hand-written by teams of clerks or scribes, they were employed on the basis of being able to write an approved hand. But for the rest of us, our individuality soon asserts itself. This is one of the aspects that make handwritten letters, diaries and journals so appealing and enthralling - not just the content, but the sense of the individual doing the writing. The whole exercise of sitting down to write involved much more thought and preparation of the materials required. So different to dashing off a quick text message with thumbs flying!

Our handwriting quirks led to the technique known as graphology, which claimed to explain/predict a person’s character based on the way they formed letters. The study of handwriting and its analysis was first developed by the Chinese 3,000 years ago and has been used by various civilisations and cultures since then. The modern approach to handwriting analysis was established by a group of French clerics, led by Abbe Michon. It became very popular in the late 19th and 20th centuries. As early as 1864 there are advertisements in Australian newspapers offering to undertake graphology analysis (in addition to other services such as astrology and “nativities cast”).

Graphology advertisement

Advertisement from Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 9 March 1864

There are articles discussing Michon’s techniques. There were even features in newspapers such as the Queensland Figaro inviting readers to send in samples of their own or a friend’s handwriting for a personality assessment by their expert “Busy Bee”, who then published these under the person’s designated pen-name to ensure anonymity. However alongside this popularity there were also many sceptics who debunked the theory.

Of course handwritten contracts, IOUs, promissory notes, letters etc. were an open invitation to forgery. There are many examples of convicts transported to Australia being guilty of this crime, including some who later became well-known, such as Francis Greenway. He was convicted of forgery when in difficult financial circumstances he forged a note on a building contract that said the client would pay Greenway an extra £250.

Even minutes of meetings or official correspondence are rewarding to read in the handwritten form and appear to be more than just a dry record. In my imagination they conjure up a picture of the gathering and the scribe tasked with recording the proceedings or drafting the correspondence, or the government official reporting to colonial authorities.

Civil Commandant official correspondence

Letter book, 1832 June 4-1835 Feb. 26, Tasmania Department of the Civil Commandant nla.obj-400068074

Magistrates' letterbook

Magistrates' letterbook for the police districts of Dungog and Port Stephens, New South Wales, 1834-1839

Handwritten travel reports, accounts of ship’s voyages, diaries, journals - perhaps the closest equivalent today are posts on Facebook or a blog. But those “perfect” digital photos and computer generated text just aren’t as much fun as the handwritten equivalent with their sketches and sometimes dried pressed flowers or pasted bits and pieces collected along the way.

Page from Pegler diary

Page from the Logbook and Diary of Edwin S. Pegler

Or comparing the neatly written accounts from the 1858 Diary of Annie Gratton on her voyage to Australia, with the rather larger, more flowing, less regular hand of the Norfolk island diary of the convict John Ward from 1841-1844, which feels as though it was penned with more speed.

Page from Gratton diary

Page from the Diary of Annie Gratton

Page from Ward diary

Page from the Diary of John Ward

It is interesting to compare the writing of someone like William Bligh in a letter from Government House to Sir Joseph Banks with his notebook after being cast adrift following the Bounty mutiny. Imagine having to grapple with messy ink and quill pens on that voyage.

Bligh letter

Bligh letter to Sir Joseph Banks

Page from Bligh notebook

Page from Bligh notebook

Handwritten documents can be quite a challenge for librarians and researchers attempting to decipher them. However there is a great sense of satisfaction as the meaning gradually emerges from the script. There have recently been some developments with computer text recognition software to undertake this - but it still has some way to go!

The facsimile edition of Arte subtilissima is on display during April 2017 in the Library’s Special Collections Reading Room.  

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. It was fascinating to read about how much preparation and thought was adhered to, prior to writing a letter. Nowadays less thought is placed upon the actions of sending someone a message and I feel this is where miscommunication and misunderstandings can arise. I strongly believe that handwritting/letter writing need not be a dying art but a fine art that can be resurrected, enjoyed and valued by a younger generation.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. It was fascinating to read about how much preparation and thought was adhered to, prior to writing a letter. Nowadays less thought is placed upon the actions of sending someone a message and I feel this is where miscommunication and misunderstandings can arise. I strongly believe that handwritting/letter writing need not be a dying art but a fine art that can be resurrected, enjoyed and valued by a younger generation.