Bronze and copper alloy pens

This post is prompted by reading David Roland’s recent post‘Pens pre-17th Century’.  David writes under the pen-name (er, sorry 🙂 ) ‘Ian the Green’ because he writes as a member of a society called the SCA, but his aim is to correctly reproduce the materials and practices of medieval European scribes.

Now, as the good-old-time Voynicheros will know, McCrone’s analysis of the inks turned up some copper and zinc, which is a little unusual.

McCrone zinc

The source of the copper and zinc remains unknown, though another possibility is use of a metal nib.  Nick Pelling has often suggested that the text was copied from wax tablets engraved with a metal stylus, but this is not quite the same thing.  McCrone and others have said they think the text was written with a quill – so all that follows is simply fyi.

The header shows one of the metal pens being used in the fifteenth-century scriptorium of the king of France.

In the image below, the top register shows a set of ‘Romano-British’ pens and the lower a medieval pen recovered in London. All are in the Museum of London. The consistency of form between examples from the early centuries AD, and then the medieval English pens, and again those used by the royal scribe in fifteenth-century France is especially interesting.

pens RomanoBritish and British medieval

I have not seen the bag of nibs found in Romania, and dated by Professor Nikolay Ovcharov the early tenth century, but for what we know of them, again see David’s blogpost and follow his links.

David’s research turned up something else of interest; his reconstructed examples appear to indicate that pens of this sort were intended to be used with the angled writing table which is illustrated below.

Left: the Evangelist St.Luke from the ninth-century Morgan Gospels (thanks, Johann). Right: portraits of Jean Miélot, sometimes called ‘the most extensively described medieval scribe and author‘. It is a detail from the first of his portraits which forms my header.

The only disappointing part of it all is that the Museum does not give any details of the ‘copper alloy/s’ used for any of the pens.

evangelist Luke Utrecht trimmed

The Evangelist Luke from the Morgan Gospels, Northeast France, second half of the 9th century. The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

scribe composite of Jean Meliot










PS. And if you’re one of those people who think that Europeans couldn’t draw the human body very well before the fifteenth century, look at St. Luke’s beautifully realised hands and feet: (enlarged version).


  1. Hi Diane!

    The Society for Creative Re-enactment was so much fun! I participated by setting up my treadled spinning wheel and demonstrating the the techniques of carding the cleaned sheepswool and immediately spinning it. Several other re-enactors began knitting and crocheting the product of my demonstration.
    My first experience with them was at the San Francisco Farmers Market (way out on the border of town) where they put on a Christmas Fair.
    Thanks for the tip on pen tips (aka as ‘nibs’ ) ?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting article, but I recommend you find out the actual source of the evangelist portrait, it is not the Utrecht Psalter, which has no evangelist portraits in it. The University of Utrecht has the entire manuscript online and anyone who wishes can see it. I have studied it extensively and can tell you for certain that this illustration did not come from that manuscript.


    • Thanks for the heads-up about that caption. Edited accordingly. I also edited out your defining ‘Psalter’ – no-one with the slightest interest in the Voynich manuscript, in medieval history or medieval art could be unaware of what the word means. 🙂


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