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The Impact of Gall Wasps on Literary History

Oak trees have thrived on this planet for over sixty-five million years, and have an estimated life span of approximately one thousand years. These trees are a necessary component to the landscape throughout most Mediterranean climates, commonly surviving induced with tumor-like bulges. Better known as galls, one can also notice these growths on a variety of different plants, from rose bushes to eucalyptus trees. Inside these galls are developing wasps, protected from most predators whilst being nourished by the tissue surrounding them. Acknowledged as gall wasps, their habitats played a large role in history and are a huge reason society has such concrete evidence of the past. 

The galls that wasps produce for their offspring were predominately used in ink production in the Western world from around the 1100s to the 1800s. Once spotted, galls were pulled from branches and leaves to be harvested. The procedure is quite complex- if picked too early, the galls can shrivel up and produce very little. If one waits until the larva is fully developed and the wasps escape the cocoon, the remains are rich with acids necessary for ink production. When extracted, ink makers grind up the gall and add the other specialized ingredients needed for the type of ink they had in mind. The composition of inks need to be thicker depending on what type of utensil is enlisted; quills need thicker ink than fountain pens do. The ingredient list for such ink varies from family to family with many moderations, but the general core elements remain the same- galls, rainwater, iron sulfate, and group-up gum arabic are all combined in varying amounts. Iron gall ink, or better known as “common ink”, was made in large batches by hand in the 1600s, and was considered just another routine household chore, like laundry or the making of the weekly loaf of bread. 

Figure 1, see below.

Gall ink has been heavily studied in hopes to answer questions as to why it was  incredibly popular for such a long time. Iron gall ink is permanent unlike its predecessor carbon ink, which was “water-soluble and easy to wash away-- which people tended to do if they ran short of materials and needed to reuse what they had already written on,” (Sverdrup-Thygeson, 40). Although useful in the education setting, society needed something to keep a permanent record, so gall ink became popularized. Tannic acid, the acid naturally occurring in the walls of the gall, was what made the gall ink insoluble; it ate into the paper evenly. Without this quality of permanence, many ancient works would have been washed away by water on the account of bad storage conditions or someone wanting to reuse the paper. Tannins, although found most abundantly in galls, can also be found in various other parts of a plant, including bark, leaves, wood, seeds, and roots. Used widespread in the industry, tannins have many uses. In combination with ink creation, tannins can be used in converting animal hides into leather for books, and in the paper industry to create an impregnated paper that offers better adhesion and staining properties.

Figure 2, see below.

The earliest discovered reference to the use of gall ink is in the Cyclopaedia of Christian Art written by the monk Theophilus in the 11th century, but was proven to be used as early as the 9th century in Egyptian work, as proven by Sir Charles Blagden. The use of iron gall ink spread from Eygpt to Europe, evidently shown in old Greek and Roman papyri corroded by tannic acid. After being in use for hundreds of years, iron gall ink was eventually replaced by synthetic ink in the late 19th century. Synthetic ink was able to meet the requirements of an increasing population of new writers more readily than iron gall ink, which had to be harvested. In combination with this, iron gall ink cannot be applied uniformly to metal type due to its aqueous properties - the ink has a tendency to smear or run instead of transferring cleanly to paper. After the popularization of synthetic inks, few people had use for iron gall inks. 

Albeit few, but people still use gall ink today in the United States. For the past hundreds of years, Native Americans use resources found in nature, like galls, to brighten their material possessions. In journal article Folk Dying with Natural Resources.. by Lynne Richards, first-person accounts of Natives highlight how territorial residents still choose natural dyes over synthetic dyes. Approximately 6,300 former and current residents described how they dyes were “used to color household and clothing fabrics, tint baskets and leathers, and (when thickened with starch) paint faces,” (Richards, 32). Natural dyes, like gall ink, are commonly used instead of synthetic dyes from commercial centers, which were generally great distances from reservations. Native Americans in the past referred to ink galls as ink balls, stating that its color resembled a purple hue, although modern dyers report colors similar to browns, yellows, and grays. It is all dependent on the method and other ingredients used whilst dyeing. Native Americans are not the only ones who find comfort in the natural versus the synthetic; prolonged applications of synthetic chemicals in the area of health and other industries left a long list of negative effects on both the environment and human health, causing current focus in production to be shifted onto alternative natural compounds, like tannic acid from galls. 

Gall wasps have had a widespread impact on the development of literary tools and remembrance of history. Without gall ink, many known facts about the past would be a mere question, lost to mother nature and the price of time. Gall wasps and their products stretch wider than this account can detail, and many things about the composition of the gall is still unknown. Next time you walk past a seemingly grotesque bulb on your tree or plant, think about how much information we’ve discovered due to it instead of immediately calling pest control.

Figure 3, see below.


Further Reading

Sverdrup-Thygeson, Anna. Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects. Found Here

Singh, Akhlash P., and Sunil Kumar. “Applications of Tannins in Industry.” Research by IntectOpen

Richards, Lynne. “Folk Dyeing with Natural Materials in Oklahoma's Indian Territory.” Found Here 

Mitchell, C. Ainsworth. “INKS. Lecture I.” Found Here


Information Regarding Figure 1:

Adler, Hermann. Alternating Generations. Found in the UW Special Collections 

Information Regarding Figure 2:

Pyne, Lydia. “A History of Ink in Six Objects.” Found Here

Information Regarding Figure 3:

Wolcott, Renee. “Benjamin Franklin’s Iron Gall Experiment”. Found Here 

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1 Comment

Thom Van Camp
Thom Van Camp
Apr 24, 2020

This was fascinating, Leah! I really appreciated the details regarding process as well as the thorough image descriptions. Thank you for sharing this work!

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