Quills and ink: a workshop with 9-year-olds in Strängnäs, Sweden.

Elin Andersson received her PhD in Latin at Stockholm University in 2011.  Her research centres around texts related to the medieval Brigittine order.  Since 2016, she has worked at the National Library of Sweden as curator of the two rare book collections in Strängnäs, those of the Cathedral Library and of the Rogge Library.

Follow Elin on Twitter at @Elin_Anderssons.  The Rogge Library can be followed on Instagram at @roggebiblioteket

The city of Strängnäs

Strängnäs, beautifully situated on the shore of Lake Mälaren, is a small town with a rich history.  Björkö (Birka), a well-known centre of trade during the Viking era, is not far away.  According to legend, the Anglo-Saxon bishop and missionary St Eskil was killed in Strängnäs around 1080; his memory survives in the name of the nearby city of Eskilstuna.  Several important monasteries were founded in the vicinty during the Middle Ages, and Gustav Vasa, a leading figure of the Swedish reformation in the sixteenth century, was elected king here in 1523.

The diocese of Strängnäs was founded around 1100.  The Cathedral – built on the site where St Eskil was killed as he disrupted a pagan rite – was inaugurated in 1291.  Next to the cathedral is the imposing Rogge Castle, originally built for Bishop Kort Rogge (d. 1501).  The castle was later used by Strängnäs gymnasium (upper secondary school) 1626–1935; today it holds the diocesan/school library and is known as Roggebiblioteket (the Rogge Library).  Since 1968 the collections have belonged to the National Library of Sweden.

BILD_1 roggeborg.jpgRogge Castle

The libraries of Strängnäs

Strängnäs holds two remarkable rare book collections, the aforementioned Rogge Library and the Cathedral Library; rarely for Scandinavian cathedral libraries, this is still housed in the cathedral precincts.  The Rogge Library is the larger collection of the two, containing some 70,000 volumes covering material from ca 1400 to 2000.  The Cathedral Library holds about 2,000 volumes and has one of the largest collections of incunabula in Sweden.

As part of a collaboration between the Cathedral and the National Library, we decided to design a pedagogical programme for 9-year-olds (year 3 in Swedish primary schools), centred around the history of books and of writing.  We also wanted to give the children a glimpse of what it may have been like to be a student in Strängnäs some 300 years ago. We divided the groups in two, with half (usually around ten students) beginning with a quill-and-ink workshop in Rogge Castle, and the rest going for a treasure hunt in the Cathedral; the groups switched after about thirty minutes.

Becoming a djäkne

A student at a Swedish gymnasium up to ca 1850 was called a djäkne, derived from the Latin ‘diaconus’ (and cognate with the English ‘deacon’).  The traditional attire worn by a djäkne was a cape-like garment.  With the help of volunteers at Strängnäs Cathedral, we were able to produce similar capes for the children (and their teachers!). The costumes gave the pupils the feeling of stepping into a role and served to set the tone for the time we spent together.

Andersson_01 djäknar Mandelgren Folklivsarkivet Lund.jpg

1849 portraits of students at Strängnäs gymnasium by the artist Nils Månsson Mandelgren.  Photo: Folklivsarkivet, Lund.

Student in cape.jpg Student in cape2.jpg

Dressed up as an eighteenth-century schoolboy.

Using replicas

Apart from the old diocesan library, Rogge Castle also houses the bookbindery of the National Library.  This turned out to be a very useful resource for our project, since one of our in-house bookbinders provided us with replicas of medieval codices, Roman wax tablets and other volumes in all kinds of shapes and formats.  In this way, the children got an opportunity to touch the books and feel their weight, getting a literal grasp of their materiality.  The wax tablet was a favourite, but what impressed them the most was probably a replica of a South-east Asian palm leaf book.  This particular design gave us a great opportunity to discuss types of books outside of a Western context, and to get the children to ask questions like ‘What is a book?’ or ‘Could a book look like this?’  The pupils also definitely took a liking to a medieval girdle-book and agreed that it must have been practical for travel.

In short, it was clear that tangibility is key in introducing younger school children to these topics.  I would, of course, have been hesitant to put real manuscripts and codices into the hands of 9-year-olds, but the replicas provided a very good substitute.


Replicas, feathers, and fountain pens.

Writing with quills

After discussing the different shapes and formats of books and looking at various kinds of scripts (cuneiform, hieroglyphs, the Greek alphabet), the students were invited to try their hand at writing with quills and brown ink.  I would have preferred to use real goose feathers, but was not able to find any, so synthetic ones had to do.  One thing I quickly learned: flimsy paper will not do at all! – thicker paper is needed to remain stable and to be absorbent enough to avoid ink smudges.  Blotting paper came in very handy; wet-wipes to clean inky fingers were another must-have.

Writing2.jpg Writing.jpg

Writing with quills and ink.

While half of the group tried their hands at writing with quills and ink, the rest explored the Cathedral, solving problems and ciphers along the way:



Every child is a unique individual.  While writing with quills and ink may come easily to some, to others it may be a challenge even to write with a regular pencil.  In every class, there is often at least one pupil with special needs of some kind.  Luckily, teachers (who of course know their students best) were always ready to step in and help where it was needed the most.  Some children struggle when the result of their efforts does not turn out quite as they had intended.  I often found myself stressing that it really did not matter what the script or drawing looked like, and had fountain pens ready for those who found the quills too difficult to use.  In my experience, five to ten minutes of writing with quills and ink was just enough for children this age.  This also left us some time to have a closer look at the different types of books mentioned above, and – not least – for the ink to dry before the workshop was over.

The response of the teachers and the pupils has been very positive. The workshops have also been a great experience for me, and I want to express my heartfelt thanks to my colleagues at Strängnäs Cathedral and the National Library of Sweden, the students and teachers who attended the programme, and to Teaching the Codex for the opportunity to share my thoughts on the blog.

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