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The Collation

Early modern straws; or, quills are not just for writing

This post is brought to you by John Ward, who observed in the 1660s that a good way to “avoid drinking too much Beer” is to “suck itt in with a quill.”

"To avoid drinking too much Beer suck itt in with a quill. Dr. Wagstaffe."

John Ward’s sage advice, given him by Dr. Wagstaffe (Folger MS V.a.297, fol. 4r). Click on snippet to see full page.

While we tend to think of quills quite narrowly as writing implements, quills in fact had many uses in early modern England. Because they were hollow shafts made of sturdy waterproof keratin, which is perfect for storing and conveying air, liquid, and powder, they had medical, culinary, recreational, and criminal applications as well. To use a quill just for dipping the tip into an inkwell and then writing on a piece of paper or parchment seems a waste of its vast potential as a hollow, waterproof tube.

Which brings us back to last week’s Crocodile, correctly answered by occasional guest contributor Dr. Elisabeth Chaghafi.

John Bate’s fire lances, on p. 91 of The mysteryes of nature, and art (London, 1634), STC 1577.5. Research photo taken by Beth DeBold.

She identified the image as a fire lance, or, a firework on a stick, from John Bate’s The mysteryes of nature, and art (London, 1634). It is made of a hollow tube of wood, paper, or pasteboard filled with layers of gunpowder, stars (small combustible pieces that look like a bunch of stars), and serpents (fireworks that burn with a serpentine motion). The fillings are divided by pasteboard discs, which are pierced so that a quill can run through them and out the top, presumably to serve as a conduit for ignition. You can see the tip-top of the quill in each of the three examples.

Quills in fireworks are just one instance in hundreds of “alternate” uses for what we have traditionally categorized as a writing implement. They were a critical utensil in a variety of medical and culinary recipes, used for pouring and blowing liquids and powders into and out of noses, mouths, ears, and eyes, among other functions. Warning: Do not attempt these at home. Really. Just don’t. Even (especially) if you think they sound like fun.

For example, quills could be filled with a Dipsacus worm and its spawn, which are found in the heads of a wild teasel (dispsacus fullonum), and hung around one’s neck for a month to tame an ague. This late seventeenth century manuscript echoes a formulation found in medieval herbals as well:

This ague cure involves putting a special worm and its spawn into a quill and hanging the quill around your neck for a month. Folger MS V.b.363, p. 4.

Another of the same kind outward
Take the worm called Dipsacus (which breeds in the head of the Kex we call Tankard brush,
put it with a little of its spawne into a Goose quill, then stop it up close & hang it about
thee neck to the pitt of the stomach, & let it be there a Month.

A bloody nose can also benefit from a quill. Just use it to pour vinegar into the ear that is on the opposite side of your bleeding nostril, and that should do it, according to this mid-seventeenth century recipe book entitled Certayne profitable and well experyenced collections aswell for making conserue of fruytes and preseruing them: As also of Surgery approved medecynes, good for any to know and hurtfull for none (Folger MS V.a.364).

If your left nostril is bleeding, use a quill to pour vinegar into your right ear. V.a.364, fol. 37r.

To stench bleding att the nose
1 ffill A quill with vineger and power it into the pacient
his eare on the contrarie side that the nose bledeth

If your nose is still bleeding, the compiler of V.b.363 suggests that you collect the nose blood, burn it until it turns into powder, and then blow it back into your nose with a quill (or ask a friend to do this for you, unless you have a bendy quill).

Burn your nose blood into a powder and use a quill to blow it back up your nose. Folger MS V.b.363, p. 6.

Or Burn to powder the blood that
falleth out of the nose, & with a quill blow it into the nose.

According to a recipe in Mrs. Sarah Longe’s recipe book, if you have a migraine, you should use a quill to snuff a solution containing breastmilk from someone who is nursing a baby who is the opposite sex from you.

To cure a migraine, snuff breastmilk from a quill. Folger MS V.a.425, fol. 22r.

For the Megrim, or swiming
in the head.
Twenty ground Ivy leaves, and one prim-
-rose roote, cleane washed, and scraped,
stamp them together small, with a spone-
full of womans milke, (If the medicine
be for a man, it must be the milke which
a Girle suck’s on, if for a woman it
must be the milke which a boy sucks)
straine out the Juice, and of that
substance take out one drop in a spone,
and sett a quill upon it, and holding
one Nostrill with your finger snuffe
it up with the other, and after 3
dayes doe the like to the other nostrill,
and then noe more for a weeke.

For rheums and cataracts, one can blow a solution of white coperas or finely pounded white sugar candy through a quill into the eye, two or three times a day (Folger MS V.a.563, p. 8). A similar recipe appears in Folger MS V.a.430, p. 101.

Use a quill to blow sugar into the patient’s eye. Folger MS V.a.563, p. 8.

The Copperas watter for the Eyes.
Take as much as A Large nuttmeg of white
Copperas and pound it and put into A
quart of spring watter, so lett it disolue
24 hours, stop it vp Close and kepe it for
your vse, tis good for aney hott Rumes in
the Eye drop it into the Eye, and for
A perle you must pound white sugar
Candy and serce it very fine as flower,
and so blow it thro a quill into the
Eye 2 or 3 times A day

If your flock of sheep is suffering from sheep scab, you can make a solution of tobacco juice in an earthen jar stopped with a cork, and then poke a hole through the cork and insert a quill, and then use the quill as a pouring device to pour the liquid into the sheep’s wool.

Jane Buckhurst’s recipe for curing sheep scab requires administering the solution through a quill, in order to penetrate the thick wool. Folger MS V.a.7, fol. 35v.

A Medesin to Cwer Cabey shipe
Tacke Tobaco or Tobaco stackes of each
a quantyty & byle it in Chamberly sune
5 or 6 oweres then tack it of & strayne it
in to a Earthan or stone bottell & stope it
in Close with a Corke; then mack a hole in
your Cork & put in a quill & so shift the
shipes woll & put it in thorrowe the quills
& it will Cwer it: but it is best to tacke
aney such ship from their fellowes

Quills can be used to get seeds out of grapes (Folger V.b.363 p. 28) and gooseberries (Folger MS W.b.456, fol. 5r).

Cut the end of your quill like a scoop, and use it to pick seeds out of grapes prior to preserving. Folger MS V.b.363, page 28.

To preserve Grapes
Take and pick ripe white Grapes pill a little of the skin off them to pick out
all the seeds (which must be done with a quill cut like a scoop) then lay
them in double refind Sugar near weight for weight; boyl them quick halfe
a dosen walmes soe take them off the fire scum them and put them up.

According to Elisabeth Fowler, you can use your quill to make a cooked chicken look like a spread eagle. After you kill and scald your pullet, you use the quill to blow the skin off her flesh (V.a.468, fol. 32v).

Blow the skin off the flesh of your pullet with a quill. Folger MS V.a.468, fol. 32v.

To make a Spread Eagle
you must take a young pullet that is
fleshy & you must keep her fasting all
night then you must tak her & cut her
throat & you must haue the water scalding
hott & ready against it is dead you must
nott ouerscald her nor brak the skin you
must take the craw out where you cut
her throat then you take a quill and blow
her untill all the skin com from the flesh…

As we continue to transcribe our recipe books and make them searchable in Luna, more innovative quill uses will surely come to light. In the meantime, EEBO is rife with hundreds of other examples. Quills were popular in angling as floats and lures, they could be used to remove lice from hawks, to make bird calls, to trap moles, to inoculate or bud a tree, or to administer poison, just to name a few. Quills were the perfect multipurpose, biodegradable, and reusable household tool.




Not just the quills either – feathers were put to a lot of uses as well. Several medical remedies specify that a feather should be used to apply ointments etc, often in contexts when using your hands might not be such a good idea (for example when treating smallpox, scalding or eye infection). They were also sometimes used for scumming liquids. Or, if you’re Caliban’s mum, you could use a Rauens feather for brushing wicked dewe from vnwholesome Fen and dropping it on people you didn’t like…
I’m pretty sure I’ve also come across feathers in cookery recipes, usually to act as fine brushes.

Elisabeth Chaghafi — October 2, 2019


A wonderfully interesting article.
It seems almost dull to record what we are doing in my calligraphy class at the moment: writing Carolingian with a quill so that our hairy, bearded one can look convincing as he plays a scribe in The Vikings, a TV drama being filmed here in Ireland.

Kevin Honan — October 2, 2019


What were criminal quillian applications?

Deborah J. Leslie — October 17, 2019


Not criminal exactly but certainly anti-social: ‘The English Rogue’ (1669) contains a description of how to amuse yourself by filling a quill with lice and/or fleas (purchased from a beggar with a bit of food) and then deliberately blowing them onto the necks of “the daintiest gentlewomen” in church…
On a vaguely related note, John Taylor also wrote a poem ‘In Praise of the Gooses Quill’ in a pamphlet-length book dedicated to goose-themed poetry (yes, seriously).

Elisabeth Chaghafi — October 22, 2019


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