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The Writing Instrument ( The Reed and Quill) and Ink

Enchanced  Courtesy of
Courtesy of

Is there one thing you cannot survive without? A teddy bear, phone, or even your BFF. Well, this type of dependent relationship, noted above, exists between the writing surface and the writing instrument. One has no purpose without the other. The very existence of literature depends on this "friendship' between paper and pen. I say this very loosely due to the fact that our paper and pen wasn’t, in fact, the paper and pen of antiquity to the dark ages. What did they use then?

I will be talking about two particular writing instruments used in antiquity, and late antiquity to the 19th century; The reed pen & the feather quill. With the instrument also came the substance which was used to write. Ink plays a role similar to the writing instrument, in terms of dependency. Basically, without the writing instrument or ink, literature wouldn't have existed.

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The Reed Pen, as you see on the left, is what was used during Classical Antiquity (800 B.C- 400 A.D roughly) for literature. Archeologist have found these writing utensils in sites from Egypt and Greece, where most literature was produced during this time period. This is THE mother hen of all pens.

Example of Nib- Courtesy of Johnston, E., & Rooke, N. (1977). Writing & illuminating, & lettering.

Usually, this pen was constructed out of Reed or Bamboo, from the stalk of the plant. The Pen is usually 8 inches long and is cut into a shaft like shape. One end is cut off obliquely. The soft inside part is shaved away by means of a knife laid flat against it, leaving the hard outer shell. This creates a nib, which is the point of the pen that the scribe uses to write. The nib acts essentially like a pen tip on a modern ballpoint pen. An example of what a nib looks like can be viewed in both of the pictures above. Continuing with the process, the nib is laid, back up, on the slab, and the knife-blade being vertical—the tip is cut 05' at right angles to the shaft (Johnston, Edward, and Noel Rooke. Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering., 1977. Print.) This creates the tip shape that you see in the pic above. After the tip is shaped, the knife blade is then used to make a slit, which is very important to the design of the writing instrument, as it stores ink. Last but not least, the nib is bent slightly upwards.

The reed pen was probably the beginning of it all because of its easy manufacturability, its durability, and the efficiency in making bold strikes. I just listed out all the steps above to make a reed pen (of decent quality). This process would be easy for people to follow and artisans to perfect. The only hardship in making the reed pens would be securing reed or bamboo. The reed shaft itself, is extremely durable and due to capillary action (thanks science), the reed can hold an enormous amount of ink. Due to its capacity to hold ink, the reed pen can perfect the boldest of strikes and majuscule scripts such as Roman Capitals. I feel that Roman Capitals were developed due to the nature of the reed pen, as it tends to make bigger strokes by using more ink.

Personally, the reed pen was an immersive experience, delightful maybe, but definitely immersive; when I say immersive, I mean I was experiencing the struggles and encountering the problems scribe did during this time. I felt transported to antiquity, as I faced some of the challenges that scribes probably did as well. Using the pen helped make the experience of writing on papyrus all the more legit. One problem that made me question myself as a student in this course, was the inefficiency of the nib after using it for so long. It would become dull and flat and therefore ineffective in

Me as I dealt with the Reed Pen-Courtesy of

making swift and precise strokes. This would lead me to spill more ink on the papyrus and mess up. This could have been fixed by shaving the point to make it sharp again. Nonetheless, the reed pen wasn't my favorite tool to use.

Throughout Antiquity, this was the pen of choice but as societies advanced, so did technology and apparently the writing instrument too. Was it because of the inefficiencies of the reed pen, the gradual shift to thinner scripts, or the change from papyrus to parchment? It may have been one or all of these reasons that led to the change from reed pen to quill pen.

The Quill

The Feather Quill Courtesy of
The Feather Quill
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The quill rises to the stage around the 6th century and last until the 19th century. The quill is something that is more familiar to the average person than the reed pen is, due to its signature feather look. This became the medium between parchment (papyrus declined in usage) and ink as literature spread geographically over to places such as Western Europe and the British Isles. Although, literature may have spread, literacy declined throughout Europe.

The quill is essentially made from the feathers of birds. Typically, the best quills are from turkeys due to their particular hard feather tips. During this time period, though, turkeys did not exist in Europe, so Geese feathers were used commonly. The feather should be about 12 inches in length. The feather is cut down to 8 or 9 inches from the top because the ending of the feather tended to be a nuisance. The shaft or base of the feather is then stripped of the filament left from the extraction from the bird.

One thing that sets the quill apart in its manufacturing process is that it has a natural slit. The slit can be enlarged if needed with a knife. A nib is then formed similar to that of the reed pen but with one difference; the tip of the nib is cut at a 70-degree angle. Some nibs can be bent downwards if the desirable stroke needs to be very sharp or precise.

What does the quill pen have that the reed pen doesn’t? For starters, the quill is as light as a feather (Literally). The aerodynamics that the feather provides helps with the swiftness that occurs when you write. The quill is definitely thinner than the reed pen and therefore, easier to handle. The quill and reed pen both share the ability to store ink due to capillarity but the quill is more versatile in writing miniscule scripts and perfecting strokes. There may be a correlation between the size/appearance of the scripts during this period and the switch to the quill.

For me, it was a fun experience writing with the quill; it gave me the same sense of time that the reed pen gave me. The nib on my pen was actually metal and not animal, so my experience may have not been as precise as I'd wanted it to be. One problem that I did encounter was that Ink always dried up in my nib and therefore made it hard for me to hold onto ink. My nib also got bent to the point where ink just spilled out of the pen. Overall, the quill was a better experience than the reed pen.


Last but not least is the medium which connects the instrument to the paper; Ink. Ink is just as important as any writing utensil because without it, nothing would get on the paper.

Ink Well Courtesy of
Ink Well
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During Classical Antiquity, much of the ancient world burned down organic material such as wood and oils to make what is called Carbon Black Ink. The remains were then mixed with water. Tree gum was then added to keep the particles from clumping together. The gum also helped the ink stay on the papyrus.

Between Ancient Egypt and Greece, the ink recipes were fairly the same but probably used different organic materials (species of trees). Colored Inks, especially in Classical Antiquity, weren't as widespread. Egypt used the earth pigment iron oxide to pigment the ink a clayish red. Most of the dyes from this time were from the ground or insects.

As time progresses, discoveries are made about ink compositions in papyri and manuscripts. Just last month, ScienceDaily released an article that showed how professionals were able to find metallic ink in the famous Herculaneum manuscripts. The international team of scientists from the ESRF, INSERM, Grenoble Alpes University, CNRS (France), the University of Ghent (Belgium), CNR (Italy), discovered metallic ink in the two fragments of papyrus from the Herculaneum library. ("Metallic Ink Revealed in Herculaneum Papyri." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily. Web. 23 May 2016.) Read more here.

Ink and Writing Instruments are the core foundations of literature because they allow its existence and have been cornerstone to its development and improvement.


Roger Bagnall’s Oxford Handbook of Papyrology (Oxford 2009)

Johnston, Edward, and Noel Rooke. Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering. Print.

"Scroll and Codex." Scroll and Codex. Web. 18 May 2016

"Metallic Ink Revealed in Herculaneum Papyri." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily. Web. 23 May 2016

"Pigments and Inks Typically Used on Papyrus." Web. 29 May 2016.


5 thoughts on “The Writing Instrument ( The Reed and Quill) and Ink

  1. Kim

    Very interesting post on the reed pen. However, it is already widely accepted that the Roman Capitals were developed from brush writing, not the reed. Catich conducted vigorous research and published his findings in The Origin Of The Serif (which you can still purchase today at John Neal Bookseller or Calligrafity). It's a fascinating read and I highly recommend it!

  2. Yasmin Khan

    It's a very interesting and informative article. It transported me to the days when my grandma taught me how to write with a reed pen(Qalam in Arabic) on a wooden tablet. It happened almost 30 years back. Your research about the history of writing instrument is wonderful. I enjoyed reading it. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: Facts and History of the Quill Pen – Pensguide

  4. Jonathan Wexler

    The method and time period of aging, makes a difference in a reed (not bamboo) keeping it's edge. Once the Java Reed pen entered use (a thorn stuck into a reed) the durability of the edge increased.


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