Are Hogwarts Acceptance Letters Historically Accurate?

Something which has never quite made sense about the Harry Potter universe is their rejection of muggle technology. JK Rowling makes it quite clear that Arthur Weasley is seen as an odd-ball because of his interest in all things muggle. In fact, the Wizarding World seems to be stuck in the Middle Ages in several different ways. You could argue that there is no need for electricity or modern transportation methods when you have a magic wand that lets you do almost anything.

In some cases, the “muggle world” moved on from these older technologies for very good reasons. Today I want to take a look at the writing system seen in the Harry Potter books. Show why we developed better versions of these technologies and consider how effective the Wizarding World version would be in reality.

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

The Hogwarts Acceptance Letter

Sending letters by owl is a common communication method within the Harry Potter universe. But today we are specifically going to look at the Hogwarts acceptance letter sent to Harry just before his 11th birthday. This acceptance letter is an important plot point within the Potter books. It’s Harry and therefore the audience’s first introduction to the Wizarding World. 

Over time the Hogwarts acceptance letter has become an iconic part of the Potter universe. Miraphora Mina, part of the MinaLima duo was tasked with bringing Harry’s letter to life for the first Potter movie. This was one of the first props created for the films, so it had to feel significant. Fortunately, Mina had a fantastic resource to work from, stating thatall the instructions I needed were in the book, it was one of the only props we had very clear instructions on’. 

7th Century Handwriting

Though hundreds of copies were digitally printed to appear on screen, approximately twenty copies were handwritten to appear in close up shots. Mina designed this handwriting in such a way that it showed a little of McGonagall’s personality, making the handwriting more unique to the character. However, for the most part, the script used on the Hogwarts Acceptance Letter mostly resembles Insular Script. This is notable as Insular specifically relates to a style of script which developed in Britain after the 7th century.

Originating in Ireland, the Insular script was developed from a half-uncial script, a descendant from Roman scripts. It is interesting that the writing is based on this script as it is very much a British product. Scripts in Britain developed separately to those on the continent (Fischer, 2005). While European scripts were a product of Roman cursive writing. The Insular scripts of Ireland were based on the earlier Roman uncials which went on to spread throughout Britain and Europe via Irish Christianity.

The Feather Quill

The style of Western scripts were heavily influenced by the quill pen. Something also featured in the Harry Potter books. Here again, we see another example of the Wizarding World continuing to use historical technology even though newer, and one could argue better writing implements are available. Feather quills were the primary writing instrument from the 9th to 19th century, they were primarily made from goose or swan feathers. Professional scribes were extremely particular about which feathers they used, the first wing feather being favoured by expert calligraphers. 

It cannot be understated just how important the feather quill was in the development of Western scripts. The blunt writing edge of the quill gave writing a distinctive look, characterised by the weight and appearance of letters. This affected the design of the original lead typefaces and even now our modern fonts are still influenced by these original designs (How To Make Everything, 2015).

The use of quill pens began to decline in the 19th century with the creation of steel pens. There is a reason these mass-marketed pens were favoured over quills. Steel nibs take very little effort to prepare before they can be used for writing. Feather quills, on the other hand, need to be prepared and the nib cut into the quill. They then need to be regularly maintained, which took a significant length of time (Dougherty, 1917). 

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

Just after Harry receives his Hogwarts Acceptance Letter we see Hagrid pen a letter back using a quill. It’s slightly surprising that quills are still used in the Wizarding World. Firstly, the act of writing is a much more time-consuming process, part of this influenced by the feather quill. It’s hard to believe that Hagrid can carry around a quill, as one might do with a biro. There is no mention of how he inked up this quill, one might assume there is some sort of magical self-inking quill.

In the Philosopher’s Stone, we do see mention of an ‘anti-cheating quill’, though how this prevents the students from cheating is not apparent. Considering the amount of time it would take a witch or wizard to prepare their quill, and the availability of winged animals to provide feathers, one wonders why the Wizarding World haven’t moved on to use more convenient writing implements.

Paper or Parchment

It’s impossible to talk about writing implements without also mentioning the material being written on. In the Potter books, parchment is commonly used as a writing surface. Composition style notebooks are also featured in the Harry Potter movies though it’s not obvious if these are made of parchment or paper. 

Though historically parchment was a common writing material, there are several reasons why it was replaced with paper. Parchment is made from the untanned skins of animals, primarily cows and sheep which has been scraped and dried. This made parchment expensive and a single animal would only provide enough parchment for 2 to 4 pages of a book (Standage, 2013). This meant that a large book would require the skins of an entire herd of animals. Due to the number of animals needed to create a single book, it would never have been possible to create parchment on a scale which meets our modern demands (Fischer, 2005). 

This makes it even more interesting that parchment is used in the Potter universe. Considering that letter writing is the main form of communication in the Wizarding World it is surprising that they can supply parchment at a rate to meet this demand.

A Mark of Authority

Harry’s letter is closed with a red wax seal. These seals have been in use for many years and predate pen and paper. The earliest versions came from ancient Mesopotamia, where they were used to authenticate writing by creating an impression in clay. More recently, with the invention of paper, seals were used to sign official documents. The seal carried a level of authority, acting in the same way that we use signatures today. 

By the Middle Ages it became common to use seals on private correspondence, the wax seal allowed the receiver to see if the message had been tampered with along the way. Seals rose to popularity again in the 19th century as postage was calculated based on the number of pages being sent. This meant it was cheaper to fold a page and seal it closed, rather than using an envelope. However, even this began to decline with the invention of gummed envelopes. The exact method of sealing a letter is never elaborated upon within the Potter books. One could only imagine that magic is somehow involved which makes the process less laborious.

Should the magical world modernise?

Harry receiving his Hogwarts Acceptance Letter is a pivotal moment in his life and has become an icon in popular culture. However, it also shows to the audience that the Wizarding World is still behind the times in many ways. Especially when it comes to written communication. You could almost argue that Arthur Weasley’s fascination with Muggle technology was justified. 

It is surprising that the Wizarding World has managed to make its current communication technologies work at such a scale. Though in many circumstances magic works just as well as muggle technology, there is an argument to be made that pens and pencils are far less hassle compared to quill and ink. And that postmen are far less likely to get lost than owls. If anything, we may hope that at some point the Wizarding World starts to realise that modern technology does have its benefits, even if it is made by Muggles.


References

Dougherty, M., 1917. History of the Teaching of Handwriting in America. The Elementary School Journal, [online] 18(4), pp.280-286. Available at: <http://History of the Teaching of Handwriting in America> [Accessed 9 July 2020].

Fischer, S., 2005. A History Of Writing. London: Reaktion, p.253.

How To Make Everything (2015) Quill Pen | How to Make Everything: Book. 15 December. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eDbtJOjFv7s (Accessed: 9 July 2020).

Kurlansky, M., 2016. Paper: Paging Through History. 1st ed. W. W. Norton & Company, Location: 1044.

Standage, T., 2013. Writing On The Wall. London: Bloomsbury, p.49.

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