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This content is taken from the University of Basel's online course, From Ink to Sound: Decoding Musical Manuscripts. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds The University of Basel was founded 1460. Today, the building called Old University still proudly overlooks the Rhine, for 555 years a venue of teaching, learning, and research. Just a stone’s throw away, Andreas Schenk

Skip to 0 minutes and 29 seconds carries on a craft that also goes back many centuries: the art of calligraphy. We are indebted to its tradition in Mediaeval monasteries, as it gave birth to the manuscripts so central to this course. Andreas Schenk tells us in his own scriptorium why he finds his trade fascinating, even in the 21st century. The field off calligraphy is many- faceted, and involves a broad range of knowledge from literature to painting. It is a cultural technology that bears upon every artistic practice. A technology the scribes used also as they wrote down musical notations. Obviously, they wrote with quills.

Skip to 1 minute and 21 seconds I always wondered why they raised peacocks in Mediaeval cloisters. The reason is, their quills are best suited for calligraphy. Second best are goose quills. Those were for the commoners who could write. For writing quills, you use the four biggest pinions that grow smaller on one side.

Skip to 1 minute and 49 seconds It is important to use feathers the bird has shed, and never those you gain from quilling, since the last ones are too soft to be fit for writing purposes. After having selected a quill, you harden it. You either store it long enough, or put it first into water, and stick it then into red hot sand. Then it is ready to be cut into a quill pen.

Skip to 2 minutes and 20 seconds Ink corrosion sometimes became a problem. Through the centuries, some inks might corrode the paper. This happened, for instance, with certain original scores by Mozart. Where there supposedly was a line before, you now just see a hole. The paper has been destroyed. Now, it might be not a very good idea for you to start cutting quills, especially if you are a musician still in need of your fingers. The knives are very sharp, and to cut a quill is not easy for the untrained. But you might want to find an existing quill and use it to copy some notes. Remember, for reason of the physics involved in the ink flow within a quill, Mediaeval scribes used to write on rather steep surfaces.

Skip to 3 minutes and 11 seconds Maybe you shall love this experience as Andreas Schenk does.

Skip to 3 minutes and 18 seconds What, to me, is absolutely fascinating is how little material you need. You need a pen, some ink, and a paper. This you will find almost anywhere. And that is one of the beauties. It is an art you may practise everywhere.

Cutting the quill

In this video we visit the calligrapher Andreas Schenk who has his own scriptorium in a medieval house in the vicinities of the so-called Old University in Basel, a building that serves as a venue for teaching, learning and research since 1460. Andreas Schenk explains how feather quills are made, that the nobility used peacock quills and the commoners goose quills for writing and what he finds fascinating about his handicraft.

We would like to invite you to make this experience yourself. Please find a feather quill and some ink and note down an excerpt of your favourite piece of music. It does not have to be much – some measures are quite enough. If you prefer you might also try and put an intriguing sound into notation: leaves rustling on a tree, the roaring of the bus that passes your house.

During the course, we encourage you to use a feather quill to enjoy the original feeling of writing down music. If you have no quill at hand, you can try building your own or buy one at a stationery stop. A quill, however, is not necessary to follow the course.

Please take a photograph of your handiwork and load it up on Padlet and share it with the others. (Have a look at the social media tips section of FutureLearn to learn how to use Padlet. Please write down your FutureLearn username in the notes section in order to identify your work.)

Let us also stress that – since sometimes a feather quill is not at hand – this task is optional. But we are looking forward to seeing your skills.

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This video is from the free online course:

From Ink to Sound: Decoding Musical Manuscripts

University of Basel