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In Cymbeline, Act I Scene 1 Posthumus Leonatus says “I’ll drink the words you send though ink be made of gall” and in Twelfth Night Sir Toby Belch calls attention to a particular kind of ink when he says “Let there be gall enough in thy ink, though thou write with a goose-pen…” in Act III Scene 2. Both of these scenes from Shakespeare’s plays are referencing the most popular kind of ink used in Shakespeare’s lifetime and that is iron gall ink. The phrase iron gall ink was a phrase used to describe common, or standard, ink and as Sir Toby Belch illuminates with his lines, the ink was used to dip your goose-pen into to write letters or any kind of correspondence on paper you wanted to write down. The ink was made from a fermentation of oak galls which is partially where the ink gets it’s name, the other part–the iron–comes from the iron salt that is added during the fermentation process to create iron gall ink. Here today to share with us the history of iron gall ink and explain exactly how the ink of Shakespeare’s lifetime was created is historical calligrapher, chemist, and owner at Scribal Workshop, Lucas Tucker. 

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In this episode, I’ll be asking Lucas Tucker about: 

  • How many kinds of ink were available during Shakespeare’s lifetime?
  • Was iron gall ink the same ink used in printing presses from this time period?
  • Would iron gall ink have been made by a specialist in ink during Shakespeare’s lifetime? We talk about Shakespeare writing with a quill and ink, but where would he have gotten his ink from? Would he have purchased it or made it himself?

….and more!

Lucas Tucker was an early lover of calligraphy, first picking up calligraphy at age ten.  Later, he developed an interest in medieval and renaissance era calligraphy and illumination styles which is when he started studying the methods used during those eras to produce the illuminated manuscripts we have today.  

With a foundation in chemistry, Lucas researched the materials and tools that had been used to create medieval and renaissance illuminated manuscripts, and eventually began creating his own historically accurate calligraphy and illumination materials.  Beginning with ink, Lucas eventually expanded the materials he produced to include many things from animal skin parchment to historic paints and pigments – even taking up blacksmithing in order to learn how to make a scribe’s knife accurate to the medieval and renaissance eras.

Today Lucas Tucker is the owner, chief calligrapher, and ink maker at Scribal Workshop, a craftsman business that specializes in historic writing, art, calligraphy, and illumination. Scribal Workshop has just partnered with That Shakespeare Life to offer their ink making kits, iron gall ink bottles, and 16th century quill pens right inside That Shakespeare Shop. Explore that here.

And with mine eyes I’ll drink the words you send,
Though ink be made of gall.

Posthumous Leonadus

Cymbeline (I.1)

Example of an Oak Gall. “Andricus kollari oak marble gall” by Rasbak 2009, CCASA3.0. Source

Oak Galls are Like a Tree Tumor

The oak galls used to make iron gall ink are selected because the way they grow creates the right chemical makeup for ink. As Lucas explains,

[An oak gall is a] growth when a certain kind of wasp (and every region has it’s own kind of wasp) that lays its’ eggs inside the branches and leaves of the oak tree, and the tree doesn’t like it so it creates a tumor around the eggs which increases the tannic content that gets put into that area. 

Let there be gall enough in thy ink, though thou
write with a goose-pen, no matter: about it.

Sir Toby Belch

Twelfth Night (III.2)

Two oak galls in a beaker and a jar of iron(II) sulfate, ingredients of iron gall ink. The papers on the table are instructions for making the ink. Photograph taken at the California State Archives, 1020 “O” Street, Sacramento, California, USA. Photo by vlasta2, bluefootedbooby on | CCASA2.0 | Source


Iron Gall Ink is a Combination of Oak Galls and Iron Sulfate

The other half of iron gall ink is the iron. This chemical was mined from the ground in the 16th century, and Lucas explains that getting the iron was simpler for Shakespeare’s time than it is today.

[Iron Sulfate was] way easier to pick it up in the 16th century than it is today. You have to find it online today. Any apothecary carried the ingredients to make ink. Medicinal purposes, and ink, and its heavily regulated today so it’sharder to find. There’s very specific things called out when you’re looking at ferrous sulfate.  

In order for it to be sold in shops of Shakespeare’s England, the iron had to be mined. Lucas explains that the iron was extracted using a specific method that led to a very pure form of iron. 

Mines in the ground, adulterated with copper salts. Call specifically for green or green gem copperous (Ferrous sulfate( it’s the purified form, but it in arge barriels and suspend ropes in it like rock candy, but they were recrystalizing the salts, and eliminates rust and copper from the salt, so you get a purer .

 When it comes to evaluating paper that was written on with this kind of ink, Lucas explains that the aduleration of copper in the ink is what causes the paper to erode over time. 

Degradation in paper is copper contamination.

I’ll call for pen and ink, and write my mind.

Earl of Suffolk

Henry VI Part 1 (V.3)

1568 Woodcut Illustration of a Printing Press by Jost Amman (1539-1591). At the left in the foreground, a “puller” removes a printed sheet from the press. The “beater” to his right is inking the forme. In the background, compositors are setting type. Printed in Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1998. (p 64) Public Domain. Source

Iron Gall Ink Was Not Used in the Printing Press

When it came to aquiring ink, you could go to the store and pick up ink but most commonly individual households madetheir own. As Lucas explains, 

[There were] more recipes for ink than there are recipe books. In this time period and even before/after, there are so many recipes that show you that there’s multiepl ways to make and each household had their own recipe. Debate over who would make it, and whether one household would have a single person responsible for the ine. There’s anecdotal evidence of people going to buy inkj from people who made very good ink. For Shakespeare, depended on easier/cheaper to buy the ink or make it himself.

For everyday use, iron gall ink was the standard across Shakespeare’s lifetime (and well after). But the fluid created while promising on paper, did not translate well to the innovation of the Printing Press. Lucas explains,

No, [iron gall ink was not used for the printing pess]. Iron gall ink is water based, [so it] didn’t stick to the moveable type. [A man named Van Ike] adapted the ink for printing. Metal type allows you to create printed work instead of relying on things like wood that water based ink would stick to. Wood will absorb iron gall ink, but iron gall on metal just makes a mess. 

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Related Episodes You Might Enjoy:

Red Lion Archaeology Episode

Iron Gall Ink and Ink Making Kits available in our shop. Click here to learn more

Sources for the Licensed Images from the Video Version: 

Oak Galls and Iron Sulfate

Examples of Ink Corrosion:

16th C Apothecary Shop,_16th_century_Wellcome_M0000704.jpg

Oak Galls

Gall Wasp,_Leesylvania_State_Park,_Woodbridge,_Virginia.jpg

18th century Iron Mine illustration

1580 Engraving of book on Iron Mines, Lazarus Ecker

Ink Sprinkler/Pounce Pot, London Museum of Science

Example of a Cuttlebone

Example of Blotting Paper

Episode of That Shakespeare Life on Quill Pens/Graphite Pencils

Part 2 of Quill Pen Research Episode

Museum of Everyday Things, article on Lead Stylus/Pencils

Article in Heritage Science “New insights into iron-gall inks through the use of historically accurate reconstructions“ 

The Pampliset Blog, “How to Make Ink: Renaissance Secret Recipe for Iron Gall Ink“ Links to  16th Century Ink Recipes/Cookbook collections 

Collection of Ink Recipes

More Medieval Recipes

Still more Medieval and 16th century cookbooks

Printing Press and Moveable Type