Table of Contents
A stylus (plural styli) is a writing implement used to scratch letters into the wax of a writing tablet. A pencil makes a coloured mark on wood, paper or parchment.
A writing tablet was usually made from wood or bone and had slightly recessed panels filled with wax (see, for example, the early-medieval Blythburgh tablet, and a medieval example from London, Egan 1998 no. 912). Wax may have been superseded as a writing medium in about the 13th century (Clanchy 1979, 119-20).
It is thought that Roman wax tablets were filled with clean wax using a spatula, often with a handle in the form of a bust of Minerva (e.g. NMGW-DED9D2); these spatulas are found in writing sets in graves, and in pictures of writing equipment, e.g. from Pompeii (Eckardt 2014, 118).
Many pointed objects could potentially be used to scratch letters into wax, and defining exactly what is (or was) a stylus can sometimes be problematic. An example is the object known as a parchment-pricker (see below) which has been ruled out as a stylus by Biddle (1990, 733-5) but confidently identified as such by Riddler (in Egan 1998, 272). Many other, less diagnostic, items have in the past been tentatively identified as styli. Definite examples of styli are relatively rare.
Styli and tablets were used for short-term notes and ephemeral, erasable texts. More permanent writings were committed to books or rolls of parchment (sheepskin) or vellum (calfskin) or, later, paper, using ink and quills or metal pens.
Lead pencils were used for sketching and taking ephemeral notes from the 9th century onwards (Biddle 1990, 737); from the late 11th century, lines were ruled in lead (Biddle 1990, 733). Writing leads or pencils were used for this; the term ‘writing lead’ is usually used for earlier, more crudely made examples, and ‘pencil’ is used for later, neater examples. The small lead pencil is by far the commonest object covered in this guide.
The lines on a page were ruled between holes, pricked through several sheets at once. The parchment-pricker is thought to have been used for this.
Styli, pencils and parchment-prickers are therefore significant objects, both in showing literacy and in helping us understand more about the actual practice of writing and the production of text.
PAS object type to use
Use STYLUS for items that have a point and a flared eraser. Use PARCHMENT PRICKER for items with a point and a rounded ball terminal. Use PENCIL both for writing leads, and for cylindrical items of lead with a neat cylindrical shape and no eraser (see below for details).
Terms to use in the description
Styli have a shaft, a point and an eraser. Sometimes there is a collar between the eraser and the shaft.
It is the presence and shape of the eraser that is crucial in defining an object as a stylus, rather than as some other type of pointed artefact (such as a pin). The rod-like shaft connecting these ends is usually surprisingly slender (a modern pen or pencil is much thicker) and can be decorated. Decoration might also be applied to the eraser; some examples have chip-carved designs, others have ring-and-dot, or applied foil panels.
A stylus should be recorded giving a number of specific details. The dimensions should include the total surviving length, with an estimate of original length if the stylus is now bent. The width of the eraser is needed, and the maximum diameter of the shaft. Check the cross-section of the shaft, and if it is faceted, count the number of facets. Check the eraser for solder from a missing decorative foil.
A parchment-pricker has a terminal rather than an eraser.
Date and material
The stylus was used in the Roman world, was re-introduced in the 7th century, and continued in use until at least the 12th century. It is not always easy to distinguish Roman, early-medieval and medieval styli; some tips are given below.
Most styli recorded on the PAS database are made of copper-alloy but examples have also been found in lead, silver, iron and bone.
Biddle (1990, 731) sets out the arguments as to why bone or wood cannot be used for styli; a metal stylus could be warmed enough to erase efficiently, whereas bone or wood could not. This argument, however, does not appear to have found favour with Roman scholars (e.g. Eckardt 2018, 26).
Lead is rarely used for objects that appear to be conventional styli, with an eraser; a possible example comes from a context of c. 1270-1350 in London (Egan 1998, no. 896). See below for writing leads and pencils, which of course have to be made from lead in order to leave a mark.
In theory, styli should be common in Roman Britain, where the population was high and literacy was widespread. Most work on Roman styli has focused on iron examples (e.g. Manning 1985, Schaltenbrand Obrecht 2012), but 90% of the Roman styli recorded on the PAS database are of copper alloy.
The most identifiable type of Roman stylus has a shaft that is narrowest at the top, and flares slightly to the base of the shaft, where the stylus steps in abruptly, and a narrow point projects. The point can be made in one piece with the rest of the stylus, or made separately. Sometimes copper-alloy examples had an iron point, and these can completely corrode away leaving a hole in the end of the shaft. Styli like these are of Manning’s types 2, 3 or 4 (see below for details).
Another element which may help to define a stylus as Roman can be the eraser. Roman styli erasers can be smaller and narrower than those on early-medieval styli (they are occasionally likened to screwdriver blades), and can also have distinct ‘shoulders’, convex curves or angles as they join the shaft.
Types 1-4 all have small erasers, often with ‘shoulders’ (a distinct angle or convex curve between the eraser and the shaft). Type 1 has a shaft without the characteristic step in to the point, and so the shafts can be hard to distinguish from those on early-medieval styli; they may be slightly thicker.
Types 2, 3 and 4 all have a step at the base of the shaft, and narrowed points. Type 2 and 3 are hard to tell apart; type 3 are larger, and have a shaft that flares at the base. Type 4 has a decorated shaft.
Manning then added variants (types 1a, 2a/3a and 4a), with wide triangular erasers which taper smoothly into the shaft, similar to the eraser on an early-medieval stylus. These types all came from first- or second-century contexts in London, and Manning suggested that they were an early Roman form (1985, 85). There are problems with this chronology (read on to find out more).
More recent work on Roman styli
More recently, Schaltenbrand Obrecht has divided European styli (97% of iron) into 34 types, grouped into eight families (2012, 102; 112-191). Schaltenbrand Obrecht 2012 can be downloaded free from the internet as a pdf; volume 1 is here and volume 2 is here.
The two typologies are very different. Narrowed or separate points, very common in England, are only found consistently on one of Schaltenbrand Obrecht 2012‘s families (family P). Five of Schaltenbrand Obrecht 2012‘s families are decorated, so would all fall into Manning 1985‘s type 4 or 4a. It may be that European styli were different to those used in Britain.
Schaltenbrand Obrecht 2012 has also found a clearer chronological progression, from small narrow D-shaped or semi-circular erasers in the early Roman period to wide triangular erasers in the late antique period (2012, 102, Abb. 92).
It is difficult to reconcile Manning’s view that wide triangular erasers are early in the Roman period, with Schaltenbrand Obrecht’s view that they are late in the period, and it may be that we need a new study specifically on the copper-alloy styli of Roman Britain to sort out the detail.
Both Manning and Schaltenbrand Obrecht have used styli from known Roman contexts, and without context it can be very difficult to date a stylus, particularly if it is incomplete. In these cases a wide date-range will have to be quoted.
Early-medieval styli are usually made of copper alloy, but there are occasional iron or silver examples. The shafts are circular in section, usually around 3mm in diameter, and occasionally have decoration in the form of groups of transverse grooves or mouldings. There is usually some kind of junction between the eraser and shaft, either in the form of a distinct angle, or a collar, or both. About a quarter of the early-medieval styli recorded on the PAS database have part of the shaft faceted longitudinally.
Most excavated finds come from contexts dated to the late 8th or 9th centuries, and decorated styli also normally belong to the 8th or 9th century. There is, however, evidence for the continued use of styli in lower numbers during the later Anglo-Saxon period (Pestell in Evans and Loveluck 2009, 126-7). There seems to be no clear development of form through the early-medieval period, and undecorated styli are often difficult to date.
Pin or stylus?
Early-medieval styli may have developed from ‘styliform pins’ which are occasionally found in early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries (some examples are shown in MacGregor and Bolick 1993, nos. 31.20-27). All styliform pins yet found, though, have pierced heads, so the likelihood is that any stylus-like object with a pierced head will be a pin. Examples on the PAS database include WILT-2B6146, HAMP-75B8E1, NMS-FE52BD and LIN-8F33B6.
Styli must have continued to be used well into the medieval period. Illustrations showing styli and tablets in use are known from 10th-, 11th- and 12th-century manuscripts, and the 14th-century Canterbury Tales mentions the use of stylus and tablets: “His felawe hadde a staf tipped with horn, a peyre of tables al of yvory, and a poyntel polysshed fetisly” (Summoner’s Tale, lines 76-78).
There appears to have been a change in shape of eraser at the end of the 11th century, to a T shape. We have just one definite example of these recorded on the PAS database, BERK-67C6B2, which is very similar to an object excavated from a late 12th- to 14th-century context in Winchester, and dated on art-historical grounds to the 12th century (Biddle 1990, 731-2, 743, no. 2283A). Another similar example, SF9941, has a spherical ball instead of a T-shaped eraser held in the mouth. Given the presence of balls on parchment-prickers, it is possible that SF9941 might also be related to writing.
See NMS-3351C6 for another object with a T-shaped end, perhaps a stylus or perhaps a pin.
Also dated on art-historical grounds is a possible stylus with a decorated triangular eraser, SF5707. Two square-section shafts with inscriptions, one incomplete and one with a pointed end and suspension loop (NMS-C6E344 and YORYM-33D0A3) are also identified as styli. These are the most likely styli of post-Conquest date recorded on the PAS database, although it is possible that more may be identified in the future.
In addition, there are a very few archaeologically excavated medieval styli. In addition to the example from a late 12th- to 14th-century context in Winchester mentioned above (Biddle 1990, no. 2283A), there is a possible lead example from a context of c. 1270-1350 in London (Egan 1998, no. 896), and two iron examples from York, one from a mid 14th- to early 15th-century context, and one unstratified (Ottaway and Rogers 2002, 2934, nos. 41115 and 41116, fig. 1520).
Many pointed objects could potentially be used to scratch letters into wax, and defining exactly what is (or was) a stylus can sometimes be problematic. An example is the object known as a parchment-pricker, normally made from animal skeletal material (e.g. LON-BD4467) but possibly also occasionally found in copper alloy (e.g. the uncertain example SWYOR-117BC7). These have a rounded terminal at one end, and a spike at the other. On bone, antler or ivory examples the spike is a separate piece of iron, and often does not survive, leaving only a hole or socket.
Biddle has suggested a use to prick holes in manuscripts in advance of ruling the lines (1990, 733-5) but Riddler (in Egan 1998, 272) thinks that they are simply styli, with the spherical terminal used in the same way as a flared eraser, to smooth and burnish the wax. Biddle’s view that a bone or wood eraser could not be made warm enough to soften the wax is perhaps not tenable; informal experiment by Helen Geake with a thin layer of beeswax, a darning needle and a rounded wooden tool has shown that vigorous rubbing with wood will effectively erase scratched lines.
Margeson has also pointed out that many surviving manuscripts are pricked with a knife, leaving long slits, rather than a pin-like implement; and that the large quantity of these objects, as well as their findspots, suggests a domestic use, perhaps in embroidery, instead (or as well as) a literary use (Margeson 1993, 69-71).
Obviously the character of the spike (or socket) at one end is crucial to the function of the parchment-pricker, so please examine it carefully and describe it thoroughly. Two from Norwich appear to have lost their spikes and have subsequently been sharpened (Margeson 1993, 70-71, nos. 436 and 437).
Parchment-prickers seem to have been used from the late 13th century into the 16th century (Riddler in Egan 1998, 272; Biddle 1990, 743) so it is possible that they superseded the flat eraser type of stylus.
There is evidence from surviving manuscripts that ruling lines using lead began during the 12th century, and there is also an intriguing instruction from the 13th century that monastic chroniclers should make notes through the year ‘with a lead’ (Biddle 1990, 735-6). So we ought to expect writing implements of lead, designed to make a mark.
Lead is not generally used for styli (i.e. for making marks in wax), perhaps because it is too soft. It is, however, used for similar items, which Biddle (1990, 735-738) calls ‘writing leads’. These are usually quite crudely made, with one pointed end; normally the other end is flattened and flared, and looks a bit like a poorly defined eraser. Biddle argues that they were used as pencils to make a light grey lead mark on stone, wood, parchment or paper. They are generally about 70-100mm long and perhaps 5mm in diameter.
Examples of writing leads on the PAS database are not common, but a few are illustrated below. They should be recorded using the object type PENCIL, as they appear designed to make a coloured mark rather than leave a scratch.
Ottaway and Rogers call writing leads ‘points’ (Ottaway and Rogers 2002, 2935, Fig.1502) but this is not a helpful term as the word ‘point’ is already in use for one end of the object.
Smaller (but still crudely made) items overlap with lead pencils (see below). Some have a groove around the blunter end, such as IOW-323476, LIN-F56057, SF-E0FD88 and LEIC-7C5845. Others have a suspension loop, such as NLM-76F3B7, IOW-DBF235 and LEIC-B36FFB; DEV-2B6957 has both.
In addition, there is a well-made lead object from a context of c. 1270-1350 in London which looks just like a stylus, but which could be a pencil (Egan 1998, no. 896).
Neat, slim parallel-sided cylinders of lead, one end neatly sharpened, are very common detector finds. We record them as PENCIL, a term that was applied to writing implements from the 16th century onwards. If well preserved, they can have longitudinal grooves or striations, and clear knife-sharpening marks. They vary in length, but most are 65mm long or less. They are normally about 5-8mm in diameter, and do not have flared ends. They have a distinctly post-medieval feel to them.
They appear to be lead pencils, although other uses cannot yet be ruled out. It has been suggested that they may alternatively be the raw material for either soldering, or for producing lead cames for windows. This is not impossible, but seems unlikely for most, given the number found, the consistency of length (most under 65mm long) and the consistency of shape (with one pointed end and one rectilinear end).
SWYOR-CE18D5 and YORYM-4E8438 are unusual in that they are enclosed in bone or antler cases, which could perhaps have also functioned as handles. SWYOR-CE18D5 is clearly tapered to accommodate the pointed end.
In theory, a post-medieval pencil should be made of graphite rather than lead, and more work remains to be done to establish date and function.
Note that calling the graphite in a pencil the ‘lead’ is not entirely due to pencils formerly being made from lead. Other graphite products also use the term, for example the blacklead polish used to give iron a protective dark sheen.
Biddle 1990 – early-medieval and medieval styli, parchment-prickers and pencils
Manning 1985 – Romano-British iron styli
Pestell in Evans and Loveluck 2009 – early-medieval styli