Adventures in Pouncing

Sorry, Willow, not that kind of pouncing…

When I began this part of the project, I did not know that there was controversy about something as simple as pounce. What is it, how was it used, was it used at all, was it even necessary. I am not going to resolve that debate here because I’m not expert enough to even have a real opinion. We’re simply going to take a look at the equipment, how I think it was used, and how the three dominant varieties of what is commonly referred to as ‘pounce’ might have been used.

Paper is a Problem

By the 16th century, paper had almost entirely supplanted parchment and vellum (both animal skins) as the most common medium for writing. In the UK, items of legal permanence are still written on vellum, but as the 16th century advanced, so too did the correspondence of an increasingly-literate populace and so too did a less expensive venue for those words. In short, papermaking became a lucrative business.

The sixteenth century paper mills of Dartford weren’t making paper of wood pulp, but of linen fiber derived from linen or hemp rags which were gathered under royal charter by John Spilman, a German papermaker granted crown license in 1588. He held a legal monopoly on the production of white paper until well after Queen Elizabeth’s death (James I knighted him in 1605).

That’s nice, Scott, but why is paper a pouncing problem?

Modern writing papers are “sized”, meaning that the fibers that make the paper have been treated to make them more amenable to holding ink. The Wikipedia article divides them into surface sizing and internal sizing, which is a handy way to think about it. Arches watercolor paper has gelatin added while the cotton fibers are in the vat, allowing the collagen to impregnate the fibers before they become paper. This is intended to allow the water to penetrate while the pigment sits on the surface, providing a cleaner image for the watercolorist, and it seems to work. For writing paper, sizing might be added afterwards as a sort of glaze or surface treatment to keep ink from soaking into the fibers or through the paper.

In part, all of this is necessary because the nature of the fiber — especially woodpulp (lignin) used in most modern papers — is a cellular structure meant to carry moisture from one part of the plant to another. This moisture-transfer is desirable if you’re a tree (or a flax plant for that matter), less so if you’re making writing paper and want the ink to say where you put it.

Period papers were mostly un-sized, and what sizing they did hold was primarily meant to hold the paper together and make it feel nice, similar to the aforementioned watercolor paper. So before you could put ink on it, the aspiring scribe needed to pre-treat it. And that’s where pounce comes in.

What is Pounce?

If you’ve read an historical fiction novel or watched a movie where someone uses a quill pen, you’ll be familiar with the idea of “sanding” their writing. Pounce, however, is not sand. It probably never was sand, though parchment might be smoothed with ground pumice, so “sanding” in the sense we think of it as a smoothing process viz. woodworking, did happen. Many calligraphers operate under the assumption that referring to pounce as ‘sand’ is shorthand for gum sandarac, a tree resin used as a pre-treatment by calligraphers who want a finer edge than unsized paper can manage.

When calligraphers are working with unsized paper or parchment/vellum, they use a medium like sandarac or ground cuttlefish bone to give the ink time to dry on the surface, rather than sinking into those cellular pipelines, creating a spiderweb effect around the letter. Sandarac and cuttlebone powder give the paper a an ink-friendly finish.

Our pounce pot holds the powder and collects the excess knocked off the work surface (hence the dished top that I went back and added to mine).

Essentially, you’re sizing the paper yourself, which is handy because you can control the process.


Note: We’re not going into great detail on sandarac because it is easy to acquire: if you live in Morocco, you go scrape it off the tree, everyone else buys it by the ounce from a merchant, just as our forebears did. Mine should be here sometime this week.

A cuttlefish is a saltwater mollusc native to pretty much all the oceans of the world. Their unique structure includes a porous, calcium-rich, inner shell which plays a role in the creature maintaining neutral buoyancy. These “cuttlebones” are a common sight, washed up on the beaches, or if beachcombing’s not your thing, you can also buy them at pet stores that cater to bird fanciers.

Traditionally, cuttlebone is ground up in a mortar and pestle, which is a royal pain in the butt and stinks in a very special and unique fashion all its own. (Also, your neighbors may wonder about that white powder you’re pouring out of that mortar into a shaker.)

Also, getting it fine enough (it should be the consistency of talc or at least baking soda) is time consuming.

Don’t inhale the stuff, it’s not good for you. Also, you can just buy the stuff pre-ground (or use an electric grinder because you’re a living, breathing, 21st century human with access to modern technology and not a semi-luddite goofball trying to prove a point).

Please note that I’m not sure how this stuff ranks on the food-safe scale (though it’s almost pure calcium and humans eat a lot of that) so play it safe and only use implements that you’re certain you can adequately clean/disinfect before reuse in the kitchen.

All that being done and said, I finally managed it and we can proceed.

~ Scott

Referenced Works:

The Calligrapher’s Handbook, edited by Heather Child, 1986 Taplinger Publishing, The Society of Scribes of London

The Complete Book of Papermaking, Josep Asunción, Lark Books 2003

Why is the UK Still Printing Its Laws on Vellum?, BBC Magazine 15 February 2016

History of Papermaking in the United Kingdom, British Association of Paper Historians, accessed 9 September 2018

Dartford: Cradle of Britain’s Papermaking Industry, Dartford Town Archive, accessed 9 September 2018

Cuttlefish: Kings of Camoflage, NOVA (television show), PBS

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s