History of Quill Ink

Where ink shows up in Shakespeare’s plays:

“Ink and paper, Charmian.” – Cleopatra, Anthony and Cleopatra (I.5)

“Get me ink and paper:”  – Cleopatra, Anthony and Cleopatra (I.5)

“If the skin were parchment, and the blows you gave were ink, Your own handwriting would tell you what I think.”
– Dromio of Ephesus, Comedy of Errors (III.1)

“I will remain

The loyal’st husband that did e’er plight troth:

My residence in Rome at one Philario’s,

Who to my father was a friend, to me

Known but by letter: thither write, my queen,

And with mine eyes I’ll drink the words you send,

Though ink be made of gall.” – Posthumous Leonatus, Cymbeline (I.1)

O damn’d paper!

Black as the ink that’s on thee! – Pisanio, Cymbeline (III.2) 

“Wherefore you do so ill translate yourself

Out of the speech of peace, that bears such grace,

Into the harsh and boist’rous tongue of war;

Turning your books to graves, your ink to blood,

Your pens to lances, and your tongue divine

To a loud trumpet and a point of war?” – Earl of Westmoreland, Henry IV Part II (IV.1)

“I’ll call for pen and ink, and write my mind.” – Earl of Suffolk, Henry VI Part 1 (V.3) 

“where, I mean, I did encounter

that obscene and preposterous event, that draweth

from my snow-white pen the ebon-coloured ink, which

here thou viewest, beholdest, surveyest, or seest;” – Ferdinand, Love’s Labour’s Lost (I.1) 

he hath not eat paper, as it were; he

hath not drunk ink

  • Sir Nathaniel, Love’s Labour’s Lost (IV.2) 

“Never durst poet touch a pen to write

Until his ink were temper’d with Love’s sighs: – Biron, Love’s Labour’s Lost (IV.3)

Beauteous as ink; a good conclusion.” – Princess of France, Love’s Labour’s Lost (V.2)

“Ink would have seem’d more black and damned here!’” – William Shakespeare, Lover’s Complaint

“O, she is fallen

Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea

Hath drops too few to wash her clean again

And salt too little which may season give

To her foul-tainted flesh!” – Leonato, Much Ado About Nothing (IV.1) 

“O Lychorida,

Bid Nestor bring me spices, ink and paper,” Pericles (III.1)

“Give me some ink and paper in my tent

I’ll draw the form and model of our battle,” – Richmond (Henry VIII), Richard III (V.3)

“I will not sup to-night.

Give me some ink and paper.” – Richard III (Duke of Gloucester), Richard III (V.3)

Set it down. Is ink and paper ready?  – Richard III (Duke of Gloucester), Richard III (V.3)

Is it even so? then I defy you, stars!

Thou know’st my lodging: get me ink and paper,

And hire post-horses; I will hence to-night.- Romeo, Romeo and Juliet (V.1)

“That in black ink my love may still shine bright.” – Shakespeare, Sonnet 65

“What’s in the brain that ink may character

Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?” – Shakespeare, Sonnet 108 (he’s talking about how to write down what you’re thinking)

“Give me pen and ink.” Titus Andronicus, (IV.3)

“O, that her hand,

In whose comparison all whites are ink,” – Troilus, Troilus and Cressida (I.1)

“Go, write it in a martial hand; be curst and brief;

it is no matter how witty, so it be eloquent and fun

of invention: taunt him with the licence of ink:

if thou thou’st him some thrice, it shall not be

amiss; and as many lies as will lie in thy sheet of

paper, although the sheet were big enough for the

bed of Ware in England, set ’em down: go, about it.

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)

“as the old hermit of

Prague, that never saw pen and ink…” – Feste, Twelfth Night (IV.2)

“Good fool, as ever thou wilt deserve well at my

hand, help me to a candle, and pen, ink and paper:

as I am a gentleman, I will live to be thankful to

thee for’t.” – Malviolio, Twelfth Night (IV.2)

“By this hand, I am. Good fool, some ink, paper and

light; and convey what I will set down to my lady:” – Malviolio, Twelfth Night (IV.2)

 I will fetch you light and paper and ink.- Feste, Twelfth Night (IV.2)

“Why, as black as ink.” – Launce, Two Gentlemen of Verona (III.1)

“Write till your ink be dry, and with your tears

Moist it again, and frame some feeling line

That may discover such integrity” – Proteus, Two Gentlemen of Verona (III.2)

H  I  S  T  O  R  Y

At the most basic level, and there’s a whole lot of history here we are condensing down, but at the basic level there were two main kinds of quill ink available to someone like Shakespeare in the 16th century. 

You can carbon ink – this is made from lamp black–which is essential soot or ash. The 15th century Florentine painter Cennino Cennini described how it was made during the Renaissance: “… take a lamp full of linseed oil and fill the lamp with the oil and light the lamp. Then place it, lit, under a thoroughly clean pan and make sure that the flame from the lamp is two or three fingers from the bottom of the pan. The smoke that comes off the flame will hit the bottom of the pan and gather, becoming thick. Wait a bit. take the pan and brush this pigment (that is, this smoke) onto paper or into a pot with something. And it is not necessary to mull or grind it because it is a very fine pigment. Refill the lamp with the oil and put it under the pan like this several times and, in this way, make as much of it as is necessary.”

You could also use the ashes from a fire pit, or any other kind of soot. The black substance that is produced once something burns up is the essential definition of “lamp black”, though “lamp” in there means it was often gathered from your lamp, and that makes sense given many households had oil lamps. 

Iron gall ink

For a long time this was thought to be the best type of ink. It comes from fermenting oak galls, which is actually a tree-tumor that grows on an oak tree. You take the tumors and soak them in vinegar (Or other acid) to ferment them. The recipe we are basing our activity on today suggests soaking the oak galls for 8-9 days and stirring it twice daily. Other recipes called for cooking the oak galls, and still other ink recipes didn’t use oak at all but chose lamp black (see carbon ink above). 

Despite the complicated way it was manufactured, Mary Greenville’s recipe indicates it was considered a necessity for the average household, that was produced in house. Indeed, most writing of the Renaissance period was done with iron gall ink, and at one point during the history of Great Britain, there were official, legally mandated, recipes for ink that were specifically assigned for use on all legal documents in Great Britain. Similarly, the US Postal Service had their own recipe for iron gall ink for use here in the United States that persisted until the advent of mechanical ink pens in the 20th century. Leonardo daVinci is known to have done many of his drawings in iron gall ink, and the earliest recipe for oak gall ink we have today come from the records of Pliny the Elder (known source for Shakespeare’s plays) However, it seems Pliny wasn’t very fastidious with his recipes since they are extremely unclear and that’s being generous. So while we know he used it, we aren’t sure how or specifically what he did to make it. The oldest Bible known to be in existence, dating from the 4th century, was written with iron gall ink. While soaking it for 8-9 days doesn’t seem “easy” to me personally, the ancient world felt differently about it since it being easy to make was one reason so many people preferred it. In addition to being easy to make,  its quality of permanence and water resistance allowed this ink to become the favorite for scribes in Europe and around the Meditteranean. The vast majority of documents surviving from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were written with iron gall ink. 

For those reasons, if I had to guess personally, I think it’s likely Shakespeare used this form of ink most often (but please don’t quote me there, I’m sharing a gut feeling that’s not actual research. Anyone looking for a PhD topic, though–I just handed you one. You’re welcome.)

Iron gall ink is likely what Shakespeare used more of, but it can also be toxic, and I want you to be able to make ink like Shakespeare without specialty items. So for this activity, we are going to use plain salt and soot to make lamp black (carbon) ink. If you DO want to use specialty items to make historically accurate iron gall ink,  then fear not! The instructions for how to do that, as well as links to the supplies you will need to purchase both oak galls as well as ferrous sulfate are included in this activity as well. Keep reading!

The various kinds of sulfates whether it was iron sulfate, or copper sulfate, are in historical recipes interchangeable. One was more green, while the other is more blue, so the resulting ink would be slightly different in color and as artists will know, is likely the reason there are so many recipes as I expect each writer had their own preference for the exact right recipe. 

To make black ink the general combination is 

Lamp soot or oak galls (Carbon ink vs iron gall ink)

Equal parts water and acid

An acid 

(often vinegar, but equally common were white wine, beer, or even water. A recipe from the manuscripts of Jehan Le Bégue, 1431, preferred wine to water)

A iron, 

usually iron sulfate, but sometimes also copper sulfate. Your regular iodized table salt will work just fine. Don’t eat it, inhale it, or touch it with your hands if you’re allergic to table salt. If you want your ink to last longer, and be of higher quality, you can actually cook rusty nails in with your ink to get iron sulfate that way. 

Pure iron sulfate may be obtained from chemical, specialty art or fabric dye suppliers in the form of a pale green powder or granules. A less pure form may be made at home by dissolving iron scraps or nails in a weak acid. However, making your own iron sulfate should never be attempted without a good understanding of the health and safety hazards involved.

If you are a teacher who is doing this with your class, you can buy pre-prepared gum arabic and ferrous sulfate to use here (ferrous sulfate will be a green tinted powder or crystals), it’s what transforms the oak galls and water mixture from brown to dark black. You can buy them on Amazon and I will link to those in the show notes for today’s episode. If you are at home, doing this for a fun hobby, and don’t want to go to the store, then you can use iodized table salt.

And a binder. 

Usually gum arabic for the 16th century, but if you are really into complicated substitutions like we are here at Cash household, you will know that gum arabic is a binder which means any kind of binder such as xantham gum or arrowroot starch will work here. For ink, since you don’t need to catch yeast like bread but instead just to stick to the paper, honey will work here as well.

Fermenting the oak galls is what makes the blank ink with iron gall ink. The fermentation process generally produces the richest, blackest inks. As the mold enzymatically digests the gallotannic acid, the solution is transformed to gallic acid. Gallic acid will produce a purer black color in reaction with iron sulfate, while gallotannic acid will produce a comparatively browner pigment. Should you want to make a gallic acid ink without investing the time, pure gallic acid can also be obtained from a chemical supplier.

Be sure to check out the supply list for links to where to get what you will need. As members of That Shakespeare Life, you have access to coupons from several retailers of historical gear (like a bottle of iron gall ink already made the historical way for those of you that want things to be REALLY easy!) You can find coupons and discounts (sometimes even free items!) to our members inside the “Special Offers” you will find at the bottom of all of our kits. From the kit page, scroll to the bottom, and click on “Special Offers” to open a similar document that lists available benefits offered from our partners. That list is digital so you can search it for keywords by selecting Command + F on a mac.

Iron Gall Ink is Corrosive

Not only can the ferrous sulfate you use to make iron gall ink cause an irritating reaction on your skin as you’re making it (so be careful!) but the final product is quite acidic itself, which means on several historical documents which were written with this ink, historians struggle with ink corrosion eating away the paper, and consequently the information that was recorded there.

“Iron gall ink is acidic. Depending on the writing surface being used, iron gall ink can have unsightly “ghost writing” on the obverse face of the writing surface (most commonly parchment or paper). Ultimately it may eat holes through the surface it was on. This is accelerated by high temperature and humidity. However, some manuscripts written with it have survived hundreds of years without it damaging the paper on which it was used” (Source)

Example of Iron Gall Ink corroding the paper on which it was written. Ink corrosion:iron gall ink has oxidized the cellulose, causing the paper to disintegrate. The manuscript is exhibited behind glass in a church in Evora, Portugal (next to the Capela dos Ossos). I took the photo through the glass. The manuscript is exhibited there without any comment, as just a curious old object. The light is indirect daylight.Manuscript from Igreja de Sao Francisco, Evora, Portugal Source

Everyone Had Their Own Special Recipe

What Mary Greenville’s recipe (and many others like it) demonstrate, is that making ink was a household affair. Consequently, everyone had their own recipe for ink the way your Grandma and my Grandma each have their own version of “the Best Biscuits” or “Christmas Pie”. Even when you’re making the same item, technically, depending on who you were, what you had available, and your own preference for writing, the specific combination of ingredients could vary from person to person, and record to record. So as students of history wanting to “try out” a “real” recipe for ink from the past, we have a multitude of options, all of which can be considered historically accurate. In addition to having many different recipes for standard black ink, different combinations could also vary the color, viscosity, and durability of the inks. Some inks were more corrosive, while others wiped away easily, and just like today there are different situations which call for each one, so all versions I’ve outlined here should be considered authentic, whether you buy your gallic acid prepared or you soak and ferment oak galls you gathered from your local trees. There would have been all forms in existence during Shakespeare’s lifetime as well, so have fun and make the ink with what you have or can easily acquire. 

Original Recipe by Mary Greenville: 

Source: https://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/detail/FOLGERCM1~6~6~1200801~196347:Cookery-and-medicinal-recipes-of-th?sort=call_number%2Ccall_number%2Cauthor%2Cauthor&qvq=w4s:/where%2FV.a.430;q:%3D%22V.a.430%22;sort:call_number%2Ccall_number%2Cauthor%2Cauthor&mi=14&trs=168

Additional History Resources: