Instruments and Preparations used in Book Production

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François Déroche, with contributions by Annie Berthier, Marie-Geneviève Guesdon, Bernard Guineau, Francis Richard, Annie Vernay-Nouri, Jean Vezin, Muhammad Isa Waley

Article contents:
Instruments used by scribes, painters and illuminators
The reed pen
Other implements employed in writing
Other tools used by copyists
Painters’ and illuminators’ tools
Black inks*
Carbon-based inks*
Metalo-gallic inks*
Compound inks*
Coloured ink*
Gold and silver preparations*
The corpus*
The state of research on colourants*
Illuminated manuscripts of the Islamic West*
The manuscripts analysed...*
Ottoman silhouetted paper. Turkey, 969/1561-2. Paris, BNF suppl. Person 1479, f. 6v°.

Information provided by Eastern sources concerning the instruments employed historically by craftsmen involved in book production is very uneven. Copyists and calligraphers devoted much time to the reed-pen, or calamus, and to inks, on which subjects the surviving literature is relatively abundant; but along with their often very precise instructions on how to create such or such a preparation one finds recipes that are manifestly fanciful. In addition, information on other specific matters is much scarcer, and in some cases non-existent.

Instruments used by scribes, painters and illuminators

The reed pen

No object related to the production of handwritten books occupied a more important place in the culture of copyists, scribes and calligraphers than the reed pen or calamus. The name calamus (Arabic qalam[1]) is derived from the Greek kalamos, ĸάλ𝛼μοϛ; it appears in the text of the Qur’ān, in particular in Sura LXVIII, which opens with the words: ‘Nūn. By the pen and what they write!’[2] Though speculations of a theological or philosophical nature on the implement are legion and remain valuable aids to understanding the culture of scribes and calligraphers in the Islamic world, they lie outside the scope of codicology.[3]

The qalam was cut from a reed whose selection is the subject of very precise recommendations on the part of many authors. Firstly, the different varieties of reed have to be distinguished (Adolf Grohmann cites ‘juncus arabicus‚ maritimus, phragmites communis, calamus Rotemg’ and ‘saccharum biflorum’)[4] as well as their various origins.[5] A late source advises that the pen should be of a diameter intermediate between that of the index finger and the little finger and this clearly represents an average value. Certain authors were of the opinion that a reed could not be used without first being prepared in some way before its user trimmed it. It was recommended first to soak the reed in water until the required appearance was obtained.[6] At this stage, the reed could be trimmed. This procedure was something of a ritual among calligraphers - So much so that some scribes and copyists kept their methods of cutting reeds a secret, al-Daḥḥāk hiding while he performed the operation, while a certain al-Anṣarī snapped off the tips of his reeds after use.[7] Using a razor-sharp blade, the scribe first cut a piece to the required length and then proceeded to shape the end used for writing.[8] He began by paring the sides and the lower section so as to free the point. The calligrapher finally employed a board or rest (miqaṭṭ, miqaṭṭa - in Ottoman Turkish makta’, see below) to hold the shaft in place as he sliced the tip at a slant whose precise angle was the object of much deliberation on the part of penmen. In fact, each calligraphic style called for a particular type of cut and an exact thickness of nib. Lastly, the scribe would split the tip into two along the grain of the fibres.

In the Maghrib, penmen used a qalam of a very different form. According to Octave Houdas, it was cut from a reed (arundo donax), the stem being sliced downwards into strips:[9] its cross-section was therefore an arc of a circle. The upper surface was left in its natural state, while the inner curve was somewhat flattened in the middle, the two edges being chamfered to make the pen more comfortable to hold. The intended writing end was then trimmed to a point whose two flanges formed an angle of 25 to 30°, the tip being cut very close to the apex. The underside was then hollowed out in a relatively broad, diamond-shaped depression almost four centimetres in length (see illus. 34). Once the reed pen was ready, the user made a split in the tip a few millimetres long. Houdas notes that ‘the edges of a Maghribī stroke are, as it were, blurred,

34. Reed-pens of Eastern and Western Islamic types

instead of the crisp, clear edges found in Naskhī [...] moreover, the width of a Maghribī stroke, though not wholly uniform, does not swell and contract into the tapering lines that give Naskhī script such a virile appearance’.[10] For Houdas, the particular type of reed pen used in this part of the Islamic world is responsible for the dissimilarity; the Islamic West kept faith with the time-honoured manner of cutting the pen, while Ibn Muqla’s reform brought with it the increased use of a calamus with ‘a flat and bevel trimmed tip’.[11] It would be instructive to examine more closely how the point of a Maghribī reed pen actually behaves: the ‘blurred’ lines to which Houdas refers might be explained by the fact that the instrument in some ways resembled a paintbrush. Split pens were used to copy texts on both parchment and paper. On the other hand, quite different instruments might be used to write on papyrus, as will be seen below.

The question of how copyists executed the early Qur’ānic scripts (second eighth-fourth/tenth centuries) is a thorny one. Some scripts, such as that of fragment MS. Paris BNF arabe 324 C, are so thick that the use of some special implement may be postulated.[12] In the absence of studies focusing on the question and of subsidiary information from ancient literary sources, it is impossible to draw any firm conclusions. On the other hand, it is known that in recent times the copyist also had at his disposal reed pens that allowed him to execute scripts with thicker lines. Contemporary calligraphy manuals illustrate models cut in bamboo and even in wood; in this latter case the instrument may be made from a single piece, or else the writing end is fitted to a shaft.[13] These techniques do not strictly speaking concern the reed pen, since they are instruments that have evolved to meet the needs of modern penmanship. For relatively lengthy texts, Turkish authors refer to the use of plants originating in Java.[14] Illustrations seem to imply that they were of similar size to those used for traditional reed pens. Writing in gold (chrysography) will be discussed below. In manuscripts written in Arabic, gilding is applied to the parchment or paper and then edged with ink; it is not inconceivable that the instrument used might differ from a copyist’s reed and perhaps be some separate illuminator’s tool.

Other implements employed in writing

Metal writing implements were also known, although none seem to have survived. Grohmann believed he had found a reference to a metal pen[15] in a treatise by Ibn Bādīs, while the Thousand and One Nights contains an allusion - this time to brass[16] - that seems to confirm this finding. Metal pens were apparently used in a similar way to reed pens, although it may be supposed that the nib appeared rather differently in this case. Another metal implement, known only from a famous text by Qāḍī al-Nu‘mān, differs radically from the two aforementioned examples.[17] The Fāṭimid ruler al-Mu‘izz allegedly designed a fountain pen and had a craftsman fashion it in gold. After adjustments, the ink released by the reservoir flowed evenly down to the nib and the instrument might be turned in any direction without the ink leaking.

Reeds were also used for copying texts onto papyrus, but the instrument seems sometimes to have resembled a brush rather than the qalam described above; the thick lines that sometimes appear on protocols, for example, were by all accounts produced in that way.[18] It is also possible that they were of the same shape as qalams from the Maghrib, which would fit in well with Houdas’ observation cited above. In the light of recent research, there also arises the question whether a special type was used for each major type of ink. In Ptolemaic Egypt, brushes were apparently used for writing with carbon-based ink, whereas a calamus would have been used for iron-gall ink.[19]

It should be noted that calligraphers obtained special effects by writing relatively short passages in relief without ink. Although this is generally termed ‘fingernail writing’ (Persian khaṭṭ-i nākhunī), the precision and elegance of most known examples make it seem probable that the writing was often executed using a pen or stylus of some kind.[20]

Other tools used by copyists

Information on the equipment used by copyists derives largely from authors associated with the milieus of secretaries or calligraphers.[21] This means that some specific tools used generally for the copying of manuscripts receive no mention, whereas others peculiar to secretaries are listed, such as the clip (milzama) used to hold down a scroll of paper.[22] Furthermore, the existence of items of furniture used specifically by manuscript copyists is not mentioned in this literature. A document from the Cairo Genizah, probably dating from the thirteenth century, nevertheless provides useful information on this point, even though it concerns Jewish copyists.[23]

The penknife (sikkīn, sikkīnd)[24] used to sharpen a substance as tough as reed had to be fitted with a steel blade of the finest quality. It also had to be extremely sharp, so much so that it could potentially constitute a danger.[25] To avoid dulling the edge, the reed was in general sharpened against a rest (miqaṭṭ, miqaṭṭa[26] - makta’ in Ottoman) of wood[27], ivory, mother-of pearl or bone; metal, which can seldom have been used, appears in the above-mentioned inventory (miqaṭṭ nuḥās).[28] This rest was normally just a small board[29], although more sophisticated versions also existed. In the Ottoman world, the most elaborate maqṭa‘(Turkish makta’) were frequently carved out of ivory, mother-of-pearl or bone; the surface included a protuberance hollowed out at the top, designed to hold the reed steady during the operation.[30]

The inkwell (miḥbara)[31] was fitted with a wool or cotton wick (līqa) to control the quantity of ink taken up by the calamus.[32] In addition, copyists might use a little stick (mil𝓌āq) to ensure that the mixture remained homogeneous and prevent a deposit from forming at the bottom of the well. In his Ḥikmat al-ishrāq ilā kuttāb al-āfāq, al-Zabīdī recommends as follows: ‘The inkwell should never in any circumstances be square in shape; for when it is, the ink thickens, whereas when it is round, its form is better suited to keeping the ink fresh, it is perfectly adapted for dipping [the pen], and it helps moreover to both improve and conserve it.[33]

One of the copyist’s main tools was the burnisher, an implement that existed in two types corresponding to two principal functions. The first and more widespread type is associated with the meticulous polishing to which the paper was subjected after coating with a starch-based preparation. Adequate results could be attained by the use of a smooth, fairly large glass or stone object, or a shell.[34] Burnishing areas of gilding (whether of scriptor illumination), however, was a task performed more effectively with the use of smaller implements which often took the form of a hard stone mounted on a shaft.[35]

As Joseph Sadan has noted, the same word (misṭar, misṭara[36]) designates both straight-edge and ruling frame, and a manuscript copyist might employ both instruments. It is true that the latter was a later development, since its use seems to have been connected with the introduction of paper and appears to have been less widely adopted in regions such as the Maghrib (a subject discussed below).[37] In rare cases, lists of implements used by calligraphers include the compass that may have been used to lay out the writing surface. This implement - the birkār- is mentioned by Ibn al-Ṣā’igh, who states for his part that it was used by 𝓌arrāqs[38], and for whose existence the estate inventory from Cairo perhaps provides evidence.[39]

The use of writing stands and book rests is attested by miniatures, while the inventory of the Cairo Genizah mentions two implements that may have been used as a stand or cradle for books and perhaps used while copying: kursī and mirfa’a.[40] Both pieces of furniture open into an X-shape, the book being laid on the upper fork. The copyist is traditionally shown writing in a crouching position with the paper resting on his thigh. There exist miniatures in the Ottoman world depicting low tables on which the scribe would place the open book he was copying.[41] A number of fine examples survive, some of them made of fine wood and richly inlaid. The preceding observation, which might equally well extend to India[42], is perhaps partially confirmed by a few pieces of furniture of this type that have actually survived.[43]

Painters’ and illuminators’ tools[44]

A number of implements were common to scribes and artists responsible for decorations, and these have been discussed above. For burnishing gold leaf after its application craftsmen used a tool consisting of a polished stone in a shape of an elongated tooth fitted with a handle. Each part of the tool had its own distinct use: the point was for pressing the gold leaf into corners and burnishing them; the fore-part for general burnishing: the bend for cross-burnishing in alternate strokes; the edge for light and gentle burnishing. The operation required meticulous care and began with a phase where the pressure exerted was light before it was gradually increased in strength.

The brush, sometimes dubbed qalam for reasons of piety[45], was the basic instrument for both painters and manuscript illuminators. This was normally made of animal hair, but it was possible for a reed to be employed as a brush.[46] Stencil sets, or pounces, were sometimes used by miniaturists and bookbinders, as well as by manuscript illuminators, to reproduce stock designs. The design would be drawn in ink upon a thin membrane[47], in which a series of pinprick holes were picked out at regular intervals following the outline of the motif. By drawing over it with a substance such as charcoal, the artist could transfer the design on the paper beneath as black or grey lines to which the decoration was added. A number of examples from Ottoman Turkey are preserved at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.[48] As a rule, traces of the original process are impossible to detect in the completed illumination and one cannot tell when they were applied. In any case, from the ninth/fifteenth century onwards in the Ottoman Empire and Transoxiana the use of stencilled ornaments in plain colour or colours, in large panels or occupying the entire margin area, became quite common, and in these cases the stencil is normally quite evident. More often, the outlines of the illuminated design were drawn in charcoal or a similar medium, as is shown in examples of pages to which the illumination was never added.

Black inks...

*The remainder of this article is exclusively available in the printed version of the related book. The book is available in both electronic and printed formats within Our Publications in the following link:

[1] Gacek, AMT, p. 118.

[2] The Koran, translated by N.J. Dawood (Harmondsworth, 1980), p. 61; the pen is also mentioned in XXI: 27 and XCVI: 4.

[3] A characteristic development in this regard occurs at the start of Qāḍī Aḥmad’s treatise, Calligraphers and painters (Washington, DC, 1959), pp. 48-52. The comments of A. Schimmel, Calligraphy and Islamic culture (New York/London, 1984), especially pp. 77-80, are particularly enlightening. In discussing writing instruments, we have deliberately kept references to a minimum; because these implements were employed by penmen, numerous works devoted to calligraphy dedicate varying amounts of space to such technical questions. There are countless texts on how to pare a reed-pen, the proportions of the two parts of the nib and the cutting angle: see for example Ibn Bādīs, ‘‘Umdat al-kuttāb wa-‘uddat dhawī al-albāb’; ed. ‘A. S. al-Ḥalwajī and ‘A. M. Zakī, RIMA 17 (1391/1971) p. 71; translation in Levey, Medieυal Arabic bookmaking and its relation to early chemistry and pharmacology (Philadelphia, 1962), pp. 13-15.

[4] Grohmann, AP I, p. 119.

[5] See Grohmann, ibid.

[6] According to U. Derman, ‘Hat’, in Sabancı Koleksiyonu (Istanbul, 1995), p. 17, the reeds should be stored in manure before trimming.

[7] Al-Zabīdī, Ḥikmat al-ishrāq ilā kuttāb al-āfāq, ed. ‘A. Hārūn (Cairo, 1373/1954), p. 78 (French translation in N. Abouricha, ‘Recherches autour de l’opuscule Ḥikmat al-išrāq ilā kuttāb al-āfāq de Murtaḍâ al-Zabîdî’; unpublished thesis, Paris, 2000). The existence of a ‘reed-cutters’ guild’ in Istanbul has been advanced (F. Hitzel, ‘Manuscrits, livres et culture livresque à Istanbul’, REMMM 87-88 [1999], p. 21). This notion, however, results from misunderstanding the word kalemtraşçılar, which in fact designates ‘makers of pen-knives’- that is, knives for paring reed-pens.

[8] M. B. Yazır, Medeniyet âleminde yazı υe islâm medeniyetinde kalem güzeli (2nd. ed., Ankara, 1981), pp. 141- 144, pls. 125 and 126.

[9] O. Houdas, ‘Essai sur l’écriture maghrébine’, Nouυeaux mélanges orientaux (Paris, 1886), p. 98.

[10] Op. cit., p. 105.

[11] Op. cit., p. 96.

[12] Houdas (op. cit., p. 96) writes: ‘It is known that Kufic is written with a pointed qalam, whereas Naskhī can only be written with a reed with a sharp-edged tip of rectilinear section trimmed to a bevel.’

[13] Yazır, op. cit., p. 139 and pls. 124, a and b; see also Derman, ibid.

[14] Yazır, op. cit., pls. 124, h and i; see also Derman, ibid.

[15] AP I, p. 122, referring to MS. Berlin, SB Landsberg 637, f. 19.

[16] Cited in AP I, p. 122, after the fifty-eighth night in E. Littmann’s German translation, Die Erzählungen aus den Tausend und Ein Nächten, vol. I (1934), p. 642. A copper calamus dating from 1284/1867-88 is preserved at Fez at the Musée des Arts et Traditions Dâr Bathâ’; see M. Manūnī, Ta’rīkh al-𝓌irāqat al-Maghribiyya (Rabat, 1991), p. 232.

[17] Kitāb al-Majālis 𝓌a-l-musāyarāt, ed. H. Feki, I. Chabbouh and M. Yalaoui (Beirut, 1997), pp. 289-290.

[18] G. Khan, ‘Arabic papyri’, Codicology, p. 15.

[19] E. Delange, M. Grange, B. Kusko and E. Menei, ‘Apparition de l’encre métallogallique en Égypte à partir de la collection de papyrus du Louvre’, Reυue d’égyptologie 41 (1990), p. 215. The term ‘metalogallic’ covers all combinations of iron, copper and other metals with gall.

[20] D. Haldane, Bookbindings, p. 185, no. 172 (MS. London Victoria & Albert Museum I.D., no call number; copied in Awadh, India, in 1265/1848-9) and p. 187, no. 173 (MS. London Victoria & Albert Museum, 4625; transcribed in Kashmir in 1283/1866-7)

[21] A print reproduced in J. Pedersen, The Arabic Book (Princeton, NJ, 1984), as illus. 6, ‘Typical book and writing utensils of nineteenth-century Egypt’, in E. W. Lane, The Manners and customs of the modern Egyptians (London, 1908) provides a general view of a copyist’s instruments: in addition to the calamus, there appear a knife, a paring board, a misṭara, a board on which to lay the page for writing, a writing-desk complete with inkwell, scissors; the Qāmūs under its case at the rear is an accessory less directly associated with transcribing manuscripts.

[22] Grohmann, AP I, p. 126.

[23] J. Sadan, ‘Nouveaux documents sur scribes et copistes’, REI 45 (1977), pp. 41-56. An Ottoman makta’ comprises a metal base and a section in ivory on which the end of the reed-pen may be laid and pared (Yazır, op. cit., pl. 130 a).

[24] Gacek, AMT, p. 70 (sikkīn only).

[25] Yazır, op. cit., pp. 145-147 and pl. 127 (kalemtraş). Ibn Bādīs (op. cit., pp. 14-15) refers to two knives.

[26] Gacek, AMT, pp. 116- 117.

[27] Al-‘Almawī, in his Mu‘īd fi adab al-mufīd 𝓌a-l-mustafīd (tr. Rosenthal, The Technique and approach of Muslim scholarship [Rome, 1947], p. 13), recommends ebony; Ibn Bādīs advocates a hard wood (op. cit., p. 15); see also al-Qalqashandī, Ṣubḥ al-a‘shā fī ṣinā‘at al-inshā’ II (Cairo, n. d.), p. 468.

[28] Sadan, op. cit., p. 54.

[29] See for example the illustration in A. F. Herbin, υeloppemens de la langue arabe moderne, suiυis [] d’un essai de calligraphie orientale (Paris, 1807), pl. I, as well as Yazır, op. cit., pp. 147-148; Derman, op. cit., p. 19.

[30] Pedersen, op. cit., illus. 6 and 27; Yazır, op. cit., pl. 130; A. Grohmann, AP I, pl. XXII/1; Derman, op. cit., p. 19; Rogers, GENEVA 1995, pp. 102-103, nos. 55-58, 231, nos. 159, 247, no. 172; VERSAILLES 1999, p. 169, no. 123. In Turkey, the protuberance designed for the reed is known as kalem yuυası (‘reed-pen nest’).

[31] Gacek, AMT, p. 28. This type of inkwell is placed on a flat surface, whereas the other variety (da𝓌āt, Turkish diυit) is portable; both occur in the Genizah inventory, implying that the miḥbara (or maḥbara) was no more exclusive to manuscript copyists than the other variety (Sadan, op. cit., p. 54, note 68).

[32] Yazır, op. cit., pp. 150-151 and pl. 136; Derman, op. cit., p. 23.

[33] Op. cit., p. 73 (tr. N. Abouricha).

[34] Yazır, op. cit., pp. 168-169, pls. 153-155; Derman, op. cit., p. 20.

[35] Yazır, op. cit., pp. 169-170, pl. 156; Rogers, GENEVA 1995, p. 243, no. 169; VERSAILLES 1999, p. 170, no. 124. See also below.

[36] Gacek, AMT, p. 68 (misṭara only).

[37] See Chapter on ‘Ruling and page layout’.

[38] Ibn al-Ṣa’igh, Tuḥfat ūlī l-albāb ilā ṣinā‘at al-khaṭṭ 𝓌a-l-kitāb, (ed.) H. Nājī (Tunis, 1967), p. 105. The compass next to the ruler also appears in a list of equipment for bookbinding given by Ibn Bādīs (op. cit., p. 153; tr. Levey, op. cit., p. 41).

[39] Sadan, op. cit., p. 49 and note 49. One set of instructions on how to lay out a page quoted below (Chapter ‘Ruling and page layout’) calls for the use of compasses.

[40] Gacek, AMT, pp. 124 and 57; also raḥl (ibid., p. 54) and milzama (ibid., p. 128).

[41] VERSAILLES 1999, p. 165, no. 115 (MS. Istanbul TKS H. 2169, f. 51 v°, late 16th cent.); COPENHAGEN 1996, p. 137, fig. 46 (MS. Istanbul TKS H. 1609, f. 74, c. 1596). The scene takes place among calligraphers and nothing implies that the situation it shows can be safely generalised.

[42] See the famous illustration in a margin of the Jahāngīr Album (Washington D.C. Freer Gallery 54.116; c. 1010-20/1600-10; reproduced in Pedersen, op. cit., illus. 29).

[43] VERSAILLES 1999, p. 167, no. 117 (Paris, Louvre, section isl. MAO 871) and COPENHAGEN 1996, p. 152-153, no. 115 (The David Collection, 19/1985).

[44] By M. I. Waley. Information concerning bookbinders’ tools appears in Haldane, Bookbindings, in CHICAGO 1981 and in articles by A. Gacek (see Chapter ‘Bookbinding’, note 4).

[45] Qāḍī Aḥmad, op. cit., pp. 23-24 and 50.

[46] See above.

[47] ‘It is best to gather […] the drawings together […] and stick them with a glue paste to a thin piece of gazelle skin that can be found in large quantities in gold- and silver-beaters’ suppliers’ (C. Huart, Les Calligraphes et les miniaturistes de l’Orient musulman [Paris, 1908], p. 18).

[48] CHICAGO, 1981, p. 73, fig. 14 and Haldane, Bookbindings, p. 10-12.

Source note:
This article was published in the following book:
Islamic Codicology: An Introduction to the Study of Manuscripts in Arabic Script _ English version, 2005, Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK, pp. 103-158.
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