Doodles, dragons, and pen trials

By Alice Millard, Research Assistant

Anyone who has ever had a long phone conversation, sat in a meeting, or attempted to put off doing homework will have whiled away some of that time doodling. But, have you ever thought of people doing the exact same thing hundreds of years ago?

The term ‘pen trial’ is essentially a collective way of describing those funny doodles, scribbles, or writing exercises that we find in old documents. If you wanted to be really fancy, you could call these by their Latin terminology probatio pennae. There are a myriad of types of pen markings that you can find hidden within documents. All giving a unique insight into the way in which a document or record was created and used, and reminding us that human nature hasn’t changed all that much!


Henry VIII Royal Charter 1526. (ChiCity/A/8)

It isn’t very common that we come across elaborate drawings in early documents. In the example image above, we can see that someone – we don’t know if it was drawn by the original scribe of the deed – has illustrated the parchment with a bird-like creature to the left, and a giant Tudor rose to the right. Unsurprisingly, the Tudor rose can be explained by the document dating from Henry VIII’s reign.

Sometimes we find even more creativity in the form of stains, blots, tears and imperfections in the parchment turned into creatures such as the tiger-like animal in the example below.

A stain drawn over to resemble an animal.
From Rudgwick burial register.
Par 106/1/5/1

Writing exercises and workings out

Pages of a commonplace book covered in handwritten alphabets and numbers.
Early 17th Century commonplace book of John Hames of Midhurst. (Add Mss 14874-14875)

Sometime we find handwritten notes which are more like quick writing exercises. As you can see from the example above, the sections of alphabet and the lines of numbers written in this book look as through they were written as a practice session. We can imagine all sorts of reasons for this, boredom being one! Other scribes may have required a inexpensive bit of paper to practice their handwriting technique, so they could refer back to it.

Page of a book with handwritten alphabet in.
Series of papers of William Hall of Burwash. (Add Mss 39854)
The back cover of Rudgwick burial register showing the vicar’s working out.
Par 106/1/5/1.

What we regularly see are numbers and sums hurriedly written in margins and on covers. As you can see on the above image of Rudgwick burial register, the vicar has quickly worked out the years of birth and death of various different parishioners which required when recording a burial. From these we get a glimpse of a sightly unorganised vicar, rushing to complete his work without bothering to find a piece of scrap paper to do his sums on.


A sheet of paper with doodled letters at the bottom of the page.
Pen trials scribbled at the bottom of a page

Other pen markings are evidence of the scribe testing the nib of their quill. Just as we check a new (or old) ball-point pen by a scribble, quills would need a quick check to see if you had cut or trimmed the nib properly. A scribe’s style of writing would be affected by the nib of a quill, and it was often important to maintain one style throughout a document. Also, testing a new quill would be required to figure out the best pressure to apply, and the best way in which to angle the nib. In the example you see above, the scribe has tested their quill by writing two ‘b’s’ side-by-side, and at another time also scribbled an unintelligible word.

Thanks for reading! All of these records are available to view at the Record Office. Come along and see what you can find!

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