Learning To Write: Practical Aspects Of Handwriting

March 30, 2023
Learning to Write: Practical Aspects of Handwriting

This story is part of an ongoing series of editorials in which HMML curators and catalogers examine how specific themes appear across HMML’s digital collections. From the Western European collection, Dr. Matthew Z. Heintzelman shares this story about Scribes.

“However useful the findings of the scholar may be, they would never reach posterity without the skill of the scribe. However good our actions, however profitable our teaching, they would all soon be forgotten if the zeal of the scribe did not transform our efforts into letters. It is the scribes who lend power to words and give lasting value to passing things and vitality to the flow of time.”
—Johannes Trithemius, In Praise of Scribes (De laude scriptorium). Translated by Father Roland Behrendt, O.S.B, published in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1974.

In 1492, Johannes Trithemius, the abbot of a Benedictine monastery in Sponheim, Germany, wrote a small paean to scribes and the act of writing. By emphasizing the spiritual value of writing as an activity, he was championing a task that lay at the core of monastic life for centuries.

But how does one become a scribe? Learning to put words to page is one thing, but having aesthetically pleasing handwriting is another. As it happens, the budding printing industry in early modern Europe provided writing masters with a forum in which they could instruct new scribes and calligraphers, as well as demonstrate their own skill with the pen.

A fantasy of writing
A fantasy of writing, illustrated in a book by Johann Merken, Liber artificiosus alphabeti maioris (A book of skills for writing capital letters), published in Mülheim am Rhein, Germany, in 1782. (AARB 00152)

Writing manuals were published, describing the tools of the trade, the proper position for writing, as well as numerous exercises to create beautiful writing. The Arca Artium collection at Saint John’s University contains a wide range of such manuals from 16th- to 19th-century Europe, printed in several languages including German, French, English, Spanish, and Italian.

Preparing Tools for the Scribe

The writing manuals range from the most practical instructions to theoretical explanations of letter shapes. In two 16th-century manuals, the reader is given depictions and descriptions of the basic writing tools, including a quill, compass, pen knife, and an inkwell. Many manuals include recipes for making ink, instructions for cutting a quill, and descriptions of different shapes one could cut the tip of the quill.

AARB 00153
Writing tools in Giovanni Battista Palatino’s Compendio del gran volvme dell’arte del bene, & leggiadramente scriuere tutte le sorti di lettere e caratteri (Compendium of the great volume of the art of writing well and legibly all sorts of letters and characters), published in Venice, Italy, in 1588. (AARB 00153)
AARB 00147
Preparing the quill. Michael Baurenfeind, Vollkommene Wieder-Herstellung der bissher sehr in Verfall gekommenen gründlich- u. zierlichen Schreib-Kunst (Complete restoration of the basic and decorative art of writing, which had fallen into decline), published in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1716. (AARB 00147)
AARB 00292
Cutting different shapes of the tip for different jobs. Charles Paillasson, Arte di scrivere (Art of writing), published in Padua, Italy, in 1796. (AARB 00292)
AARB 00294
More examples of tips, from Louis Rossignol’s L'Art d'ecrire, nouvellement mis au jour sur les differens caracteres les plus usitez (Art of writing, newly updated for the different types of lettering that are most used), published in Paris, France, in 1785. (AARB 00294)
AARB 00146
Who knew that cutting a quill could be so complicated? From Juan Claudio Aznar de Polanco, Arte nuevo de escribir por preceptos geometricos y reglas mathematicas (New art of writing, using geometric precepts and mathematical rules), published in Madrid, Spain, in 1719. (AARB 00146).

Proper Posture

Once the tools, inks, and paper or parchment are ready, it’s time to pay attention to how to hold the pen. One recommended method is to use your first two fingers and thumb. Avoid clenching your fingers, as can be seen in the bottom illustration on a plate from AARB 00276. Note, too, that writing is a two-handed activity, so do not simply use your non-dominant hand to hold your coffee!

AARB 00276
Good (top) and bad (bottom) form for holding a pen, from Anton Neudörffer’s Schreibkunst (Art of writing), printed in Nuremberg, 1601. (AARB 00276)
AARB 00160
Be sure to use both hands now, as demonstrated by Johann Gottfried Weber in Allgemeine Anweisung der neuesten Schönschreibkunst (General instruction in the latest calligraphy), printed in Duisburg am Rhein, Germany, in 1780. (AARB 00160)

And of course, posture is everything! Be positioned to copy for hours at a time—shown here with adequate lighting, at a spacious table in a large room.

AARB 00292
Well-lit space, clear table, sitting upright, from Charles Paillasson’s Arte di scrivere, printed in Padua, 1796. (AARB 00292)
AARB 00292
From Charles Paillasson, Arte di scrivere printed in Padua, 1796. (AARB 00292)

Practice and Results

The scribe-in-training will want to imitate the many examples provided in the manuals, before attempting grander, more ornate decoration of their text.

AARB 00160
From Johann Gottfried Weber, Allgemeine Anweisung der neuesten Schönschreibkunst, printed in Duisburg am Rhein, 1780. (AARB 00160)
AARB 00160
Sample of a hierarchy of scripts, from Johann Gottfried Weber, Allgemeine Anweisung der neuesten Schönschreibkunst, printed in Duisburg am Rhein, 1780. (AARB 00160)
AARB 00147
Weaving text, from Michael Baurenfeind, Vollkommene Wieder-Herstellung der bissher sehr in Verfall gekommenen gründlich- u. zierlichen Schreib-Kunst, printed in Nuremberg, 1716. (AARB 00147)

To be sure, it takes much practice and patience to become a good scribe or calligrapher. However, accidents do happen now and again.

Even with the best of preparation, things can still occasionally go wrong... don't lose heart! (AAP0790)

There is much more for your scribal journey in the Western European collections in HMML Reading Room, including calligraphic books (AARB 00225) and writing and paleographical manuals from across Europe. Try, for example books printed in:


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