Pen, Ink, and Pedagogy

By Amanda E. Herbert

Pen and Ink Lab in HIST 488 at Christopher Newport University.  Photo by the author.
Pen and Ink Lab in HIST 488 at Christopher Newport University. Photo by the author.

I teach an undergraduate seminar on gender in early modern Britain, and throughout the semester, students learn about the ways that people in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries worked to differentiate women from men.  We talk about early modern ideas on the human body: Galen’s four humors, the two-seed versus the one-seed model of conception, and “reversible” reproductive systems.  We also talk about the ways that early modern people mapped gender onto the workings of the human brain, ascribing mental acuity to men, and emotional intensity to women.  All of these lessons help to show students that gender is a social construct, and that it is historically variable.  But the exercise that truly brings these concepts home is one on education.  After providing an overview of the topics that were taught to early modern children, I divide the classroom:  half learn to write like girls, and half learn to write like boys.

I tell the students that they are going to learn about early modern education and material culture by writing with quill and ink.  The students think that they are being given identical materials for this “hands-on” exercise.  I distribute goose quills and powdered ink packets (both of which are available for sale via the Colonial Williamsburg website), and I pass out model alphabets from the seventeenth century, so that the students can form their letters in the style used by early modern people.  But what they don’t realize is that they have received separate models: one alphabet comes from a guidebook for young boys, and another alphabet comes from a guidebook for young girls.

With their alphabets in hand, the students are then set a task: they are asked to copy a recipe for early modern ink.  This receipt, which I transcribed from a commonplace book held at the Folger Shakespeare Library, is entitled “To make Inke Verie Good.”  It was created by Anne (Granville) Dewes in the seventeenth century:

Take a quart of snow or raine water and a quart of Beere vinegre, a pound of galls bruised halfe a pound of coperis [protosulphates of copper, iron, and zinc], and 4 ounces of gum bruised; first mix your water and vinegre together, and putt itt into an earthen Jug, (then put in the galls) stirring itt 2 or 3 times a day letting it stand 8 or 9 daies and then put in your coperas and Gumme as you use it straine itt. &c.

As the students mix their ink, shape their quills, and start copying their recipes in “early modern style” handwriting, we talk about the ingredients contained in the recipe, as well as their cost and accessibility to people of both high and low status.  We talk about the time and labor that must have been involved in the production of ink.  We discuss the ways that ink was used in the home, and the gallons of ink that must have been consumed by early modern print shops.  We consider who made ink (both women and men) and who used ink (both women and men).  Ink was a ubiquitous part of life for early modern Britons, as essential to communication as are our own smartphones and tablets today.

About fifteen minutes before class ends, I ask the students to compare their transcriptions, and they are always surprised at the differences: half the class has written in one style, and half in another.  That’s because in early modern Britain, girls were encouraged to learn “Italic hand,” a style of writing with clearly defined, beautifully sculpted, decorative letters.  But boys were taught “Secretary hand,” a flowing, connected style intended for those who, it was implied, wrote with urgency, volume, and haste.  Realizing the ramifications of this – that although women and men used the same tools and the same recipes to communicate, early modern men’s words were seen as authoritative, while early modern women’s were viewed as window-dressing – brings our lesson on gender and education to a powerful close.

*****
Interested in early modern ink, or early modern education and handwriting?  The Folger Shakespeare Library has some excellent resources:

[1] Anne (Granville) Dewes, Cookery and Medicinal Recipes, ca. 1640-1750, V.a.430 f. 42, Folger Shakespeare Library.  You can access Dewes’ ink recipe via the Folger’s Digital Image Collection: http://luna.folger.edu

[2] Dr. Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts for the Folger, has written a great piece on education and early modern handwriting for the Folger’s Collation blog: http://collation.folger.edu/2013/05/learning-to-write-the-alphabet


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