The Curious Child: writing and books

Catherine, Called Birdy

by Vic­ki Palmquist

After read­ing Cather­ine, Called Birdy, read­ers will won­der about Edward, Birdy’s broth­er, and the books he was scrib­ing at the monastery. In what type of book did Birdy keep her jour­nal? Who taught her to write? Did she write in the same fan­cy script that her broth­er did at the monastery?

Birdy gives the read­er clues about her jour­nal: “The skins are my father’s, left over from the house­hold accounts, and the ink also. The writ­ing I learned of my broth­er Edward, but the words are my own.”

The author, Karen Cush­man, describes the scrip­to­ri­um in the monastery for us, “Edward works in Par­adise. Beyond the gar­den, near the chapel, is a room as large as our barn and near as cold. Shelves lin­ing the wall hold books and scrolls, some chained down as if they were pre­cious relics or wild beasts. In three rows sit fif­teen desks, fee­bly lit by can­dles, and fif­teen monks sit curled over them, their noses pressed almost to the desk­tops. Each monk holds in one hand his pen and in the oth­er a sharp knife for scratch­ing out mis­takes. On the desks are pens and quills of all sizes, pots of ink black or col­ored, pow­der for dry­ing, and knives for sharpening.”

Cather­ine, Called Birdy is set in 1290 – 91 AD, a time when writ­ing meth­ods and scripts were chang­ing a great deal. Life was mov­ing from the medieval peri­od to the Renais­sance, although no one alive then would have known that or giv­en those names to their lives. In the Author’s Note, Ms. Cush­man writes, “Most peo­ple did not know what cen­tu­ry it was, much less what year.”

It’s hard for us to think of the effort it took to cre­ate one book, the hours and hours of painstak­ing draw­ing of let­ters, which not only had to be read­able but had to sat­is­fy the fash­ions of the day, the stan­dards for art and beau­ty that defined pen­man­ship in that era.

This was approx­i­mate­ly 200 years before the first book would be mechan­i­cal­ly print­ed in England.

In the year in which Cather­ine, Called Birdy is set, the fash­ion­able cal­lig­ra­ph­er used the pen­strokes of Tex­tu­ra Quadra­ta, so called because its rhyth­mic ver­ti­cal strokes cre­at­ed a tex­ture on the paper … and was very dif­fi­cult to read. There are many mod­ern sam­ples of this style on The Pen­sive Pen, a blog about cal­lig­ra­phy by Jamin Brown.

gothic textura quadrata

The Goth­ic man­u­scripts … used the same pen stroke for many let­ters, and thus a word like “min­i­mum,” with its unre­lieved parade of ver­ti­cal strokes, was almost impos­si­ble to read.” The Smith­son­ian Book of Books by Michael Olmert, Smith­son­ian Books, 1992, pg 75.


Here is an excel­lent video of a scribe, with a quill pen, cre­at­ing let­ters in the Tex­tu­ra Quadra­ta or Black­let­ter style. Here are more sam­ples.

In the class­room, you might talk about the dif­fer­ences between the way we write today and the time and care it is tak­ing for the scribe in the video to write the alphabet.

Enjoy this sam­ple page of cal­lig­ra­phy from John Stevens Design, a mas­ter cal­lig­ra­ph­er whose doc­u­ments are cre­at­ed for spe­cial occa­sions as works of art.

Today, we open up our word pro­cess­ing pro­gram and scroll through the choice of fonts, mak­ing selec­tions based on our mood or the mes­sage we’re hop­ing to con­vey. We may choose Fritz Quadra­ta or Caslon or Brush Script, most like­ly being unaware of the deep his­to­ry behind each of these fonts. Today, Goth­ic Tex­tu­ra Quadra­ta is a font one can pur­chase for $12 online. Com­pare this to the art and care and skill of the scribe cre­at­ing a page (with­out ben­e­fit of spellcheck or the delete key) to sat­is­fy a rich patron who want­ed a book in their house and paid for it to be handwritten.

 “In the ear­ly mid­dle ages lit­er­a­cy was viewed with some sus­pi­cion; actions def­i­nite­ly spoke loud­er than words, espe­cial­ly writ­ten words. These atti­tudes changed as the mid­dle ages pro­gressed; gov­ern­ment became more depen­dent on records, and cor­re­spond­ing­ly the rest of soci­ety became increas­ing­ly aware that mem­o­ries were not enough. It became impor­tant to have writ­ten proof of own­er­ship or events. Latin was the lan­guage of gov­ern­ment and offi­cial busi­ness, but by the four­teenth cen­tu­ry an increas­ing amount of writ­ing was being con­duct­ed in the ver­nac­u­lar.” A Medieval Book of Sea­sons, by Marie Collins and Vir­ginia Davis, Harper­Collins, 1992, pgs 25 – 26.

textura quadrata

From about 1150, how­ev­er, all this began to change. Pro­fes­sion­al sec­u­lar scribes and illu­mi­na­tors start­ed to take over the book busi­ness. There is tan­ta­liz­ing evi­dence from the mid-12th cen­tu­ry of trav­el­ing crafts­man who must have hired them­selves out to those who want­ed man­u­scripts made.” The Smith­son­ian Book of Books by Michael Olmert, Smith­son­ian Books, 1992, pg 10.

If a copy­ist made a mis­take he put a series of fine dots under the offend­ing word and then con­tin­ued with his text. This avoid­ed the cre­ation of a hor­rif­ic black cross-out, which would spoil the nor­mal den­si­ty of the let­ters on the page. Mis­takes com­mon­ly occurred when the scribe was inter­rupt­ed and then cast his eye for­ward or back­ward to a word sim­i­lar to the one he had just fin­ished. Christo­pher de Hamel, an expert in medieval man­u­scripts, says this usu­al­ly hap­pened when the scribe lift­ed his pen from the page for more ink (scribes tried to do a sin­gle sen­tence with each refill.) The Smith­son­ian Book of Books by Michael Olmert, Smith­son­ian Books, 1992, pg 74.

 “Monas­tic scribes engaged in a vari­ety of jobs. They pre­pared offi­cial doc­u­ments, copied or recopied ancient or con­tem­po­rary texts, pro­duced missales for use in church or books of hours for rich patrons. Such lengthy, metic­u­lous work was obvi­ous­ly a strain on the eyes, o it is not sur­pris­ing that the first glass­es were worn by monks. Man­u­scripts could be con­sult­ed in the library, but to pre­vent their being pur­loined by too indi­vid­u­al­is­tic monks they were some­times changed to the shelves, as at Her­ford. This explains why in some monas­ter­ies copy­ists either worked in the library or in a scrip­to­ri­um pro­vid­ed for com­pil­ing and copy­ing texts.” Life in the Mid­dle Ages, by Robert Delort, Edi­ta Lau­sanne, 1972.

Mov­able type is cred­it­ed to Bi Sheng, who lived in Bian­i­lang dur­ing the North­ern Song Dynasty. Some­where between 1045 and 1058, he fash­ioned “3000 of the most com­mon let­ters” out of clay, baked them in a kiln, and used them to print pages of type.

In 1234, Kore­an print­ers invent­ed met­al move­able type, which was more durable, and they print­ed the “old­est extant met­al print­ed book” in 1377.” Be sure to take a look at the UNESCO Mem­o­ry of the World for more details about this mile­stone that changed the world forever.

Here’s a fact that many of us learned in school: Johannes Guten­berg pub­lished the 42-line Chris­t­ian Bible in 1455. His accom­plish­ment was to invent a screw-type press that could use mov­able type to print pages quickly.

The first book to be print­ed in Eng­land was William Caxton’s edi­tion of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in 1484. Cax­ton pub­lished “about 100 books, a num­ber of which will live for­ev­er. The Can­ter­bury Tales (1476−1478) was near­ly a cen­tu­ry old when Cax­ton print­ed them (Chaucer died in 1300). He prob­a­bly print­ed them not because they were “lit­er­a­ture” but because they con­tained pop­u­lar, appeal­ing sto­ries. Cax­ton was a busi­ness­man. Enter­tain­ment was more impor­tant to him than eru­di­tion.” The Smith­son­ian Book of Books by Michael Olmert, Smith­son­ian Books, 1992.

And what hap­pened to those books? Did Birdy’s house have a shelf with books on it, script writ­ten by Edward? Here’s a pub­lic library 400 years lat­er at Wim­borne Min­ster in England.

Sit­u­at­ed with­in the Min­ster, this was one of Britain’s first pub­lic libraries, estab­lished in 1686 in the room pre­vi­ous­ly the Trea­sury, which housed the wealth of the Min­ster until it was con­fis­cat­ed by Hen­ry VIII.

Among the ear­li­est col­lec­tions of the library, which we see here, were donat­ed by Rev. William Stone on con­di­tion that the books were chained to the shelves — he wished that his items be avail­able not only to the cler­gy but also to ‘the bet­ter class of per­son in Wim­borne.’  He pro­vid­ed mon­ey for the chains and also stip­u­lat­ed that the exist­ing works also be chained, lest they be pil­fered by the less scrupulous. 

Wimborne Minster public library


Stone’s col­lec­tion is entire­ly eccle­si­as­ti­cal, but lat­er col­lec­tions have a vari­ety of sub­jects, from archi­tec­ture to wine press­ing and even how to kill an elephant.

These are Vic­to­ri­an chains but there are two orig­i­nals remain­ing. Because the chains are attached to the edges of the book cov­ers, rather than the spines which would become eas­i­ly dam­aged, the books face inwards.” From Geo­graph: Wim­borne Min­ster, Dorset, Great Britain.


Art of Calligraphy

Alpha­bet Goth­ique, Tex­tu­ra Quadra­ta. Ger­ard Caye. YouTube video.

Art of Cal­lig­ra­phy: a Prac­ti­cal Guide to the Skills and Tech­niques. David Har­ri­son. DK Books, 1995.

Cather­ine, Called Birdy. Karen Cush­man. Clar­i­on Books, 1994.

Chi­na, “Bi Sheng.”

Friend­ly Korea, my friend’s coun­try. “The Great­est Inven­tion, Mov­able Met­al Type Print­ing and Jikji.”

Geo­graph website.

Life in the Mid­dle Ages. Robert Delort. Edi­ta Lau­sanne, 1972.

Mal­o­ry Project. Fac­sim­i­le ver­sion of William Cax­ton’s 1485 edi­tion of Le Morte d’Arthur.

Medieval Book of Sea­sons. Marie Collins and Vir­ginia Davis. Harper­Collins, 1992.

Mem­o­ry of the World. Unit­ed Nations Edu­ca­tion­al, Sci­en­tif­ic, and Cul­tur­al Organization. 

Ore­gon State Uni­ver­si­ty Libraries, Spe­cial Col­lec­tions & Archives Research Cen­ter. “Trea­sures from the McDon­ald Col­lec­tion, the Incun­able Era, the Guten­berg Press.” 

Pen­sive Pen, a blog about cal­lig­ra­phy. Jamin Brown.

Smith­son­ian Book of Books. Michael Olmert. Smith­son­ian Books, 1992.

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8 years ago

Vic­ki, this is a ter­rif­ic post – thanks so much. Am here­by call­ing my writ­ing room The Scriptorium.

Reply to  Tricia
8 years ago

Good to hear from you, Tri­cia! Here­after I shall think of you writ­ing in The Scrip­to­ri­um. I hope you have cen­tral heating!

Pat Bauer
Pat Bauer
8 years ago

Wow! That’s some mighty impres­sive research! Thanks for shar­ing it. I haven’t read the book in many years, but I remem­ber lov­ing it. You nudged me into putting on my gigan­tic pile of books that I hope to get to in the near future … or when I retire!

Reply to  Pat Bauer
8 years ago

It’s a good book for re-read­ing, Pat. I love it because it makes me laugh … and Ms. Cush­man is a good storyteller.

Eileen Beha
8 years ago

Very, very inter­est­ing and well-writ­ten, Vic­ki. A joy to read.

Reply to  Eileen Beha
8 years ago

Thank you, Eileen. I love a good research project. And I dis­cov­ered so much beyond Guten­berg and his press.

8 years ago

Enjoyed this inter­est­ing post, Vic­ki, with its well-researched links.