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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.

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Image of an Oak Gall, a plant growth used to make iron gall ink
  • Photo of oak galls and the ingredients of iron gall ink, with instructions
  • 16th century woodcut illustration of a Printing Press
Sign up now for just $5/mo (or login here) and all the bonus content will immediately expand right on this page. (You will also get access to all our other patrons-only content, too!)

Resources Lucas Tucker Recommends: for replicating specific hands from the period.

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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