The Writing Schoolemaster

By A. S. Osley
Date Added: 17/07/2009


When I was editing Calligraphy and Palaeography, I felt that among the most entertaining contributions was Sir Francis Meynell's essay on English writing masters, 'According to Cocker'. One of the penmen he mentions is Peter Bales, whose dramatic contest in handwriting with his rival Johnson is well-known. Less familiar, perhaps is Bales' little book, The Writing Schoolemaster. For the British Museum does not possess a copy; the reader must go either to the Library of Lambeth Palace or to the Bodleian.

Peter Bales was born in London in 1547 and was educated at Oxford. He came to notice by reason of his proficiency in microscopic writing. For example, he copied a Bible which could be contained within "the compass of a walnut." He presented a sample of his work, mounted under a glass in a ring, to Queen Elizabeth at Hampton Court. She is said to have been much pleased with it, frequently wearing the ring and showing it as a curiosity to foreign ambassadors. Bales set up as a writing master near the Old Bailey, and he published The Writing Schoolemaster in 1590. He was also employed to copy public records and papers in book form.

His career took a rather more sinister turn, when Walsingham and Sir Christopher Hatton used his disconcerting skill of hand for forging letters and transcribing and deciphering secret correspondence. A more attractive episode in his life o~curred when Jodocus Hondius of Amsterdam came to London in 1592. (Hondius, it may be remembered, bought from Mercator's children all the engraved copper plates which the great Dutch calligrapher and cartographer had made for his maps.) During his visit, he persuaded the foremost writing masters to let him have specimens of their hands for his collection: Bales was one of those who did so.

It was in 1595 that the famous handwriting competition between Bales and Johnson took place. Bales won the prize of a golden pen, which had been offered to the victor. In 1597 the second edition of The Writing Schoolemaster came out. Bales was involved in another shady episode, when he was approached by, John Danyell to copy some of the Earl of Essex's letters, which he had in some way obtained. Danyell was tried for forgery before the Star Chamber in 1602. Bales gave evidence against him. Little is known of the last part of Bales' life: he fell into obscurity and died probably about 1510.

The Writing Schoolemaster is dedicated to Sir Christopher Hatton, to whom Bales ventures "to offer up this small mite, proceeding from my slender capacity" as a New Year present. To the reader, he describes his book as "a simple New yeares gift, being the first fruits of my pen." The work was printed by Thomas Orwin and sold "at the author's house in the upper ende of the Old Bayly, where he teaches the said Artes."

Bales composed his book in three sections: 'Brachygraphie', which is "to write as fast as a man speaketh treatably, writing but one letter for a word" i.e. a primitive form of shorthand: 'Orthographie', or correct spelling: and 'Calygraphie', on which the author claims "through my long practice, to be able to say something more than ordinarie."

The section on calligraphy consists of eight short chapters, each consisting of advice in prose, printed in black-letter type, which is then rendered into homespun verses, printed in italic type. It seems likely that the verses were intended to be committed to memory. In chapter one, the pupil is advised to get a good penknife of Sheffield steel and a whetstone to keep it sharp. This is followed by information on quills and how to make a pen which will fit the hand. The student is then taught how to hold the pen. It is to be placed between the thumb and two fingers, the thumb 'aloft', then the forefinger, the middle finger being lowest...The pen is to be lightly held, neither upright in the hand, nor sloping too much. The elbow is not to be placed too close to the side nor spread out too far.

The fourth chapter explains how the penman should set himself to write. He should use a desk so as not to injure his sight by stooping too much. "In comelie sort, and with a seemlie grace" he should place himself right forward, the head being not turned tpo much to one side, or bowed too low; "the softer you sit, the longer you may." The next chapter is concerned with the choice of paper and parchment.

Choose not your paper too hard nor too soft,
For being too hard, it marres the pen oft:
And being too soft, then slippeth your letter;
But yet of them both, the softer is better:

Parchment should be neither too chalky nor too greasy. If it' is too chalky, it should be scraped with a knife and rubbed with pumice stone. "If greasie it be, then let it alone".

Bales now turns to the making of letters. The learner should study his copy-book most carefully, observing how each stroke is made. Mind, hand and eye should be co-ordinated. When a letter seems hard to make, he suggests that the pupil should practise it over and over again with a dry pen. He points out that, when a, b and m have been mastered, it is possible to write three-quarters of the alphabet. The spacing of letters is the theme of chapter seven.

Make ruled lines, the way more plaine to showe!
For children first must creepe before they goe.
Tis good at first, to write between two lines.
For writing straight, dooth grace the hand better,
Than oftentimes the goodness of the letter.

An equal distance should be kept between each letter, and a space of one letter should separate each word. The student should aim for grace and consistency, not attempting fast writing too soon: "for writing fast, before you write the better, will cause at last, you make not one good letter.

In his concluding chapter, the author states that the road to perfection is through constant practice of the fundamentals of the art "with diligent heede of minde, hand, and sight." Intelligent practice and attention to detail are the things that count.

The following extract gives something of the flavour of The Writing Schoolemaster.


For the choyce of your penknife.

Provide a good knife; right Sheffeild is best.
A razor is next, excelling the rest,
A whetstone likewise of hoane that is white,
will make your knife cut your penne well to write.


For the choyce of your quills, and the making your pen.

Make choyce of quills, the best that may be found,
Of seconds or thirds, both hard, good and round.
Then clense your quill well, and slit your pen cleane,
To better your writing it will be the meane.
And with that olde verse let your pen agree,
That the right side more light and short may be.
But in the nicking of your pen take heed,
That the right side be not too short indeed.
And if your pen be too weake or too stiffe,
Help it you may in the neb and the cliffe.
If it be hard, make neb and cliffe longer:
If it be soft, then shorter and stronger.
Thus by this rule, (if well you understand)
Soone may you make a pen fin your hand.

For details of ' Bales' life, the reader is referred to the Dictionary of National Biography, Sir Ambrose Heal's English Writing Masters and, as already stated, Sir Francis Meynell's essay' According to Cocker' in Calligraphy & Palaeography. Grateful acknowledgements are made to Lambeth Palace Library for granting access to The Writing Schoolemaster.