Thursday, June 26, 2008



Among the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary for vitriol is "Virulence or acrimony of feeling or utterance" and for vitriolic is "Extremely sharp, caustic, or scathing; bitterly ill-natured or malignant." Figurative expressions such as "vitriolic pen," "pen dipped in vitriol," and "pen dripping with vitriol" are so common as to be almost clichés. For example, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in its entry for Spanish satirist Marjano José de Larra (1809-1837), says, "[M]inisters feared his vitriolic pen."

But for many centuries, pens were literally dipped in vitriol, a corrosive chemical, otherwise known as ferrous sulfate, one of the ingredients of ink. W. Wattenbach, Das Schriftwesen im Mittelalter, 3. Aufl. (Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1896), discusses "Tinte" on pp. 233-244 and gives some old recipes for ink on pp. 238-239, among them the following (p. 238) from a manuscript of 1412 (the rough translation is mine):
To make good ink. Take oak galls and crush them finely into powder. Over them pour rain water or small beer and add as much vitriol as you think is sufficient. Let it stand thus for a few days. Then strain it through a cloth, and it will be good ink. If you want to write with it, add a bit of gum arabic, heat a bit over a fire until the ink is just warm, and the ink will be good and indelible, over whatever material you write with it.

Ad faciendum bonum incaustum. Recipe gallas et contere minute in pulverem, funde desuper aquam pluvialem vel cerevisiam tenuem, et impone de vitalo (l. vitriolo) quantum sufficit juxta existimationem tuam, et permitte sic stare per aliquot dies, et tunc cola per pannum, et erit incaustus bonus. Et si vis (scil. scribere), tunc impone modicum de gummi arabico, et calefac modicum circa ignem, ut solus incaustus tepidus fiat, et erit incaustus bonus et indelebilis, super quocunque cum eo scribes.
Wattenbach's book is available in its entirety on Google Book Search. I haven't seen Monique Zerdoun, Les encres noires au moyen âge (Paris: CNRS, 1983; rpt. 2003).

If you've ever eaten the snack known as Cheetos, then you've ingested vitriol. Ferrous sulfate is one of the ingredients of Cheetos. Cheetos are one of my favorite junk foods, and I've eaten lots over the years. If you are what you eat, then perhaps that helps to explain why I am "extremely sharp, caustic, or scathing; bitterly ill-natured or malignant."

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