Sunday, 19 December 2021

Of iron gall ink and re-enactors

 Earlier today I posted the following tweet

Over the years I've posted quite a few posts about iron gall ink - after all it was the dominant ink used Europe (and by extension European settlements overseas) between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Relatively waterproof, permanent, and easy to use with a dip pen, it was ideal. In fact some jurisdictions still require its use for signatures on legal documents, and it was only with the development in the nineteenth century of alternatives such as Stephen's Endorsing Ink, that its use declined - that and the fact it didn't play nicely with these new fangled fountain pens.

The great drawback to iron gall ink, and the bane of archivists, that it was acidic and slowly corroded the paper was not a problem to the original clerks who wrote out the documents, after all they didn't care whether their document would be legible in two hundred and fifty years time, only that it was correct and ready for use.

But when reading about making iron gall ink I had an epiphany - the ingredients are easy enough to obtain, especially in a medieval Europe covered  in oak trees, and while its preparation needs a bit of skill, it's not that much more difficult than making jam or a tomato relish - ie an individual clerk could make his own if need be.

And that's not something we would know unless people had had a go at making it in their kitchens.

And, in a chain of consequence that reminded me of what Lucy Worsley said about re-enactors a few years ago, about how you have to try things out to find how they worked, as with the iron gall ink.

And that encapsulates what I feel about re-enactors - some people just like dress-ups as a bit of light relief - nothing wrong with that - but others do it to find out how things were done - as I discovered when talking to a member of the Ermine Street Guard nearly thirty years when he described just how it was to sit in a Roman four pommel saddle without stirrups-  almost as secure as using a contemporary western style saddle apparently. Again something that no one would know unless they tried.

Now we can't all ride horses, but we can experiment, be it making iron gall ink or making Georgian puddings and pies, and at best it gives us an insight into how the past worked, and if nothing else a bit of fun trying.

Even simple experiences can be valuable - once, years ago in Thailand, I borrowed a single speed sit up and beg bike - the riding position was different, and the way the bike handled was different, and the speed was slower and gentler, yet the machine was supremely practical, making one realise just what an enabling technology the safety bicycle was ...

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