'Hovv Yov Ovght to Hold Your Penne'

Writing advice -- including "how to sit" -- from 1611

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The subtle differences between "Good" and "Naught" when it comes to pen-holding (Richard Field, 1611, via the Folger Shakespeare Library)

Writing is hard. And I don't just mean writing in the sense of the textual medium that makes use of a set of signs or symbols. I mean butt-in-the-chair, hands-on-the-desk writing: the physical activity.

For people who lived during the early modern era in England -- people for whom quill-and-ink was, Internet-like, a new technology -- putting pen to paper was a new challenge to take on. And it was a bit of a technological mystery, too. How do you hold a pen? How do you angle your elbow? How do you orient your paper?

So many questions. Thankfully, though, early modern England had its own versions of eHow. One of these was a book of writing advice, published in 1611 by Richard Field. The manual's title is commonly shorthanded to A new booke, containing all sorts of hands ... but its full title is the slightly less concise A Nevv Booke, containing all sorts of hands vsvally written at this day in Christendome, as the English and French Secretary, the Roman, Italian, French, Spanish, high and low Dutch, Court and Chancerie hands: with Examples of each of them in their proper tongue and Letter. Also an Example of the true and iust proportion of the Romane Capitals. Collected by the best approued writers in these languages.


The picture above -- a helpfully, if subtly, illustrated guide to the Aughts and Naughts of pen-holding -- comes from that book. It specifies details (grip, nib angle, elbow orientation) that, to us ever-more-occasional pen-users, are second nature ... but that, to the early practitioners of quill-writing, were probably just as confusing as Gmail is to your Grandma.

Fortunately for pen-writing's early adopters, English's early modern writing advice didn't end there. The picture in Wright's book, Jonathan Goldberg notes in Shakespeare's Hand, is, in fact, "preceded by a page of rules." These include "how to make ink," "how to write fair," and -- my favorite -- "how to sit." 

So how do you sit? According to the (literal) writing coaches Jean de Beauchesne and Peter Bales:

Place not your elbowe too close to your bodie, nor too farre of from it, but in a comely and easie manner may both your armes before you, as it shall best be seeme you, and as it shall be most easie for you, the better to endure to.

But, wait: what manner is most easie, when it comes to sitting?

Place your body right forward, as it shall be most seemly and easie for you: and tourne not you head too much aside, nor bed it downe too lowe, for auoyding of wearines and paine: and for such as haue occasion to sit long, I would wish them to sit soft, for their better enduring to write ..."

And what about your ink? How should you deal with your ink? Here's Bales yet again:

Let not your pen be too full of inke, for feare of blotting: and when it writeth not cleane, or is ouer worne, either wipe it, or mend it: If you should write smaller, tourne your pen a little more a side, and write with the lower neb thereof.

And what about the core technology here, the pen? How should you hold it? Here's Bales on that:

Hold softlie your pen, leane lightlie thereon,/ Write softlie therewith, and pause thereupon.

In other words: Hold your pen "very gently in the hand without gripping," because to fail to do this would mean that "command of hand" gets "vtterly lost."

Via Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library. (Hat tip Garance Franke-Ruta.)