Medieval London

Bone Pen


Pens were incredibly important for creating books and illuminations in the medieval era because the strenuous process of creating a book was done by hand. Typically used by scribes and monks, pens were considered a luxury that only a few could afford, and even if they could, there was no guarantee that they knew how to write. Writing instruments developed through the Middle Ages and varied from anything like a stylus to a dip pen to a quill. All of these different types of pens required construction on the part of the user as well as the knowledge to make ink and have access to the paper. Using a pen in the Middle Ages meant so much more than simply writing down Latin letters. It symbolized status, privilege, and access to both an expensive education and rare commodities. Owning a pen meant that one had to know how to construct the writing instrument, how to make (or purchase) parchment, vellum, or paper, and how to create ink.

This pen, in particular, is normally known as a dip-pen, is labeled because the shaft was made of bone. Dip-pens can be constructed from metal, bone, or reed. Those who used these pens, almost always scribes and monks, often constructed them as well, because the knowledge of both writing and creating writing implements was passed down through them. The dip pen was made by first hollowing out the center of a piece of wood, a small bone, or a reed. In the case of a bone pen, a monk took the small bone of an animal (near London that typically meant the smaller bones of a goat), dried it, scraped out the marrow, and sharpened one end to a point while keeping one end closed. From there, a slice was usually placed down the center of the point, which allowed for ink to stay within the tip and stain the paper when used for writing. The ink itself usually derived from natural ingredients, including the most expensive inks makde from crushed dried beetles to create a red stain, or minerals, like lapis lazuli which was mined and shipped from Pakistan to create an iridescent blue. 

Through the development of the writing utensil, however, quills rose in popularity due to their ease of construction and widespread availability. Writers mainly used goose feathers, which are already hollow, dried the feather out for months, sharpened the tip with a knife, and placed a metal nib which held the ink in the feather once again. Scribes used mainly vellum to create the best manuscripts such as those with colored illuminations, which were tedious and costly to make. Vellum consists of the dried and rolled-out skin of a lamb, which tended to brown and shrink over time if not processed correctly. Most documents were made out of cheaper parchment (from a sheep skin) and did not include illustrations. 

Although the purpose of a pen has not changed over time, its appearance, construction, and users have changed. In the Middle Ages, the ability to read and write was not a reality for a majority of the population, as that privilege belonged mostly to the clergy, especially scribes who both wrote texts and created manuscript illuminations. However, in London, literacy rates were higher because merchants and craftsman who ran their own trade and business needed to record inventory and transactions to run a successful business. Additionally, those who held civic office had to draw up contracts, as well as collect taxes, which require meticulous records. Some households of richer merchants and guildsmen often recorded their financial statements using a dip pen that a civic officer could have sold to them, or if he could have known how to make his own pen. Civic officers, like aldermen, used pens to record legislation and records, like the different mayors elected in London each year. Pens gave a permanent voice to those who could afford them and could read. Having pens and paper meant much more than knowing how to read in the medieval world; it meant having the status, education, and wealth to acquire all the extensive tools used to write.

This particular pen is made from bone, most likely a radius (arm bone) from a goose, which was readily available in medieval London. It is dates from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, where pens transitioned from dip pens made of bones and other material, to feather quills. It is curved slightly and one end of the shaft is sharpened to a point. The center of the bone is hollow, which allowed the user to fill up the bone with ink and write on parchment. It does not contain a split nib, which is a narrow gap made in the center of the sharpened point that allows the pen to hold the ink but still functions easily. It is 121 millimeters long and nine millimeters wide.

-Selin Berberoglu

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