|Image of a scribe at work.|
Estoire del Saint Graal, La Queste del Saint Graal, Morte Artu.
British Library, Royal 14 E III f. 6v
I've mentioned on occasion that I prefer to work on inclined writing slope. It has a number of benefits such as improving my comfort, allowing for more consistent pen control, and keeping my work piece where I can see what I'm doing more easily. Working on a slope also for better control of the ink flow from some types of pens, allowing for cleaner, crisper lines.
Medieval manuscripts contain many images of scribes at work like the one above. In almost every one, the scribe is working on an angled writing desk. Given the effort and materials to build such a specific piece of furniture, they must have been necessary for the scribe's work. I believe there are two main reasons that a slope was important to medieval calligraphers, both of which are also relevant to modern calligraphers.
- Body Mechanics - Calligraphy is written best with whole-arm movements. It's much easier to get the correct movement and control it with your elbow hanging straight down in front of your shoulder. Working flat usually brings your elbow up against your body, forcing you to create letters by moving your wrist, resulting in a loss of control.
- Ink flow control - Feather quills and reed pens hold their ink through the physics of surface tension. If you try to use them on a flat surface, gravity overcomes much of that tension resulting in a lot of ink flowing onto the page. This makes crisp lines, especially hairlines, difficult or impossible to achieve. By working on an angled writing surface, gravity pulls less ink from the pen, resulting in crisper lines. This is also true of metal dip nibs, especially when used without a reservoir. It's less true of dip nibs used with a reservoir, cartridge pens, or felt pens.
As not everyone has the money or space for a large adjustable drafting table or a period style writing desk, here are some tips on how to create a writing slope for minimal cost.