This page was created in January 2022 to support an undergraduate course called Material Middle English, focussing on Middle English literature and manuscript culture. It gathers together the samples we will be working through during our “palaeography boot camp,” so that students can review the material later. It will grow over the course of the term.
If you have stumbled upon this page from outside this class, please note that this overview of script development was targeted at a particular set of interests, so there are some omissions, particularly of sub-types within scripts. I can recommend the excellent introduction at vHMML School for a more complete view. A very useful book is Michelle P. Brown, A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 (London: British Library, 1990), the source of a great deal of the information on this page.
You might also be interested in Medieval Manuscripts on the Web and Chaucer and Gower in Manuscript and Early Print.
You can jump to specific scripts using the index below.
- Roman Square Capitals
- Rustic Capitals
- National Hands
- Insular Half-Uncial
- Insular Minuscule and Anglo-Saxon Minuscule
- Caroline Minuscule
Roman Square Capitals
Roman Square Capitals were typically used in monumental format, as above on the Arch of Titus. In class we looked at the Codex Aureus, a 4th-century manuscript of the work of Virgil, part of which is in the Vatican and can be viewed through their digital site (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. lat. 3256). Another example is from a collection of fragments, including from the works of Virgil, from St Gall (St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1394). The picture below is from the sample we transcribed in class.
The script survives as a display script in later manuscripts. Below are two examples. The first is from the Benedictional of St Aethelwold, which dates from 963 – 984 (London, British Library, Additional MS 49598); the second is from the Vespasian Psalter, from the second quarter of the 8th century (London, British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian A.i). In this manuscript, the Roman Square Capitals are a hybrid, a combination of square and cursive forms.
Below is another page from the St Gall manuscript we worked with in class, with some of the notae communes (abbreviations for common elements of Latin) circled; in this case, dots are being used after q to incidate the enclytic -que (and). Other common elements are -bus, -m, and -n.
The other main Roman book hand is called Rustic Capitals. As with Roman Square Capitals, surviving late antique examples are found in copies of the works of Virgil, such as the Vatican Virgil (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. lat. 3225) and the Vergilius Romanus (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. lat. 3867). The Vespasian Psalter, discussed above as an example of an 8th-century manuscript that uses Roman Square Capitals for some of its display script, also uses Rustic Capitals from time to time, as in the heading in the image above.
The image on the left is another example of the same practice, this one from St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 152, a 9th-century collection of works by figures such as Augustine and Gregory the Great.
Notice that these 8th- and 9th-century manuscripts, while they use Late Antique scripts, separate the words. The Late Antique examples of both Roman Square Capitals and Rustic Capitals, on the other hand, write in scriptio (scriptura) continua, with no word separation.
The next script we looked at was Uncial, a majuscule (all capital letters) script used for high-end production, such as in the manuscript above, The Harley Gospels (London, British Library, Harley MS 1775), made in northern Italy in the 6th century. Uncial was used chiefly from the 4th to the 8th centuries.
We discussed the use of the script in the great pandects (complete Bible codices) made at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow under the rule of Ceolfrith, who was abbot there from 690 – 716. The example to the right is a fragment from one of these. One of the three Bibles survives intact: the Codex Amiatinus (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiat. 1), sent as a gift to the Pope in 716.
These examples indicate division, not by words, but by clauses and phrases: this is called per cola et commata.
Below is another text probably made at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, also written in Uncial: this is the St Cuthbert Gospel (London, British Library Additional MS 89000), so called because it was found in the coffin of St Cuthbert.
Note the abbreviations in the example below, indicated by a line above the letters: ds for Deus, sps for spiritus, and di for dei. An online resource for understanding manuscript abbreviations is the digitized version of A. Capelli, Dizionario di Abbreviature Latini ed Italiani (Milan, 1912).
Uncial is a majuscule script, meaning its forms are mostly what we would call upper-case. Half-Uncial is a minuscule script: as the lesson on the vHMML School site notes, it is “recognizably the ancestor of our modern lower-case alphabet.” It developed in the Late Antique period, and was widely used for less high-grade books.
In class we looked at Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. lat. 3375 (fol. 29r), a 7th-century manuscript. The sample above is from St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1395, collection of manuscript fragments from St Gall: this page is from an Italian manuscript of the early 5th century.
To the left is part of the slide I showed in class, comparing some of the significant letter forms that can be used to distinguish Uncial (on the left) from Half-Uncial (on the right).
I also showed some images of the ductus (order and direction) of both scripts. Those were taken from Michelle P. Brown and Patricia Lovett, The Historical Source Book for Scribes (London: British Library, 1999).
We discussed the aspect of scripts; that is, how one describes their general appearance.
Half-Uncial was important in the development of what are called the National Hands – those scripts associated with various groups that came to influence and power as the Romans retreated from much of Europe. On the left is an example of Merovingian Uncial (London, British Library, MS Burney 340) from a late-7th century manuscript from northern France: notice that it uses Rustic Capitals as a display script. On the right is an example of Corbie AB Minuscule (London, British Library, MS Harley 3063), made in the Abbey of Corbie in northern France around the end of the 8th or the beginning of the 9th centuries.
This close-up shows some of the unusual letter forms found in Corbie AB minuscule. Look at the a in the first word (Beatus) and the b in the fifth word in the first line (agrabat)
We also looked at examples of Luxeuil Minuscule and Visigothic Minuscule. The sample on the left (London, British Library, Additional MS 11878) comes from the Abbey of Luxeuil in Burgundy, which was founded by the Irish missionary Columbanus (not to be confused with Columba/ Colum Cille, the Irish missionary who founded a monastery at Iona in 563). The manuscript dates to around 732, shortly before the abbey was raided by armies from Al-Andalus (the deaths of most of the community led to the decline of the script). The example on the right is the Silos Apocalypse (London, British Library, Additional MS 11695), made at the Benedictine abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos in northern Spain between 1091 and 1099.
Insular Half-Uncial develops from the 6th to the 9th centuries in Celtic monasteries and areas influenced by them. It is a characteristic script of what are often called Insular Gospel books, such as
- Barberini Gospels (Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Barb. lat. 570)
- Book of Durrow (Dublin, Trinity College MS 57)
- Book of Kells (Dublin, Trinity College MS 58)
- Echternach Gospels (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS latin
- Irish Gospel-Book of St Gall (St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek Cod. Sang. 51)
- Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero D iv)
- MacRegol Gospels (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct.D.2.19)
- St Chad Gospels or St Teilo Gospels (Lichfield Cathedral)
Folio 208r of the Lindisfarne Gospels, below, was on the slide I used to shows some of the characteristic letter forms of this script, on the right
We also looked at the opening of the Gospel of John, also from the Lindisfarne Gospels
Insular Minuscule and Anglo-Saxon Minuscule
The Lindisfarne Gospels were made around the year 700. The Old English gloss was added in the 10th century, in Anglo-Saxon Pointed Minuscule. The image to the right is an example of Insular Minuscule, another script of Irish origin, used for less luxurious books than the insular Gospel books. It is a life of St Columbia, written in Iona in the late 7th or early 8th centuries (Schaffhausen, Stadtbibliothek, Gen. 1). We looked at some familiar letters, like the g and r from Half-Uncial. I also pointed to the club on the finial of the b in the sample below.
Insular Minuscule is adopted by the early English, and used in both Latin and vernacular texts. Below on the left is a copy of Aldhelm’s De virginitate (London, British Library, Royal MS 5 F iii), made in Mercia around the year 900. This particular example is in Anglo-Saxon Pointed Minuscule.
Below on the right is the Beowulf Manuscript (also known as the Nowell Codex; London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A xv), c. the end of the 10th or the beginning of the 11th centuries. The individual leaves are now mounted in paper frames, as a result of damage from the 1731 fire.
The slide below indicates both familiar Insular letter forms, and the characters that scribes copying Old English had to invent to represent forms not found in the Roman alphabet.
Caroline Minuscule spread throughout Europe in the late 8th century, thanks in large part to the educational reforms championed by the Emperor Charlemagne. In England, it tended to be used mostly for Latin, while Anglo-Saxon minuscule tended to be used for the vernacular. In addition, there is a distinctive form of English Caroline. We looked first at an example of continental Caroline: the image below is from the Moutier-Grandval Bible (London, British Library, Additional MS 10546), produced in Tours at the Benedictine Abbey of St Martin in the mid-9th century.
The slide below shows the round aspect of the script; Uncial a; straight-backed d; e with a tongue; r; tall s; and the development of a bow in Uncial g
On the right is an example of English Caroline Minuscule, from the Ramsey Psalter (London, British Library, Harley MS 2904), made in England, at Winchester or Ramsay, in the fourth quarter of the 10th century. Notice the serifs on the minims: this is a feature of English Caroline, or of insular influence, in the case of a continental production. Classic continental Caroline has straight minims without feet.
Protogothic develops out of Caroline Minuscule. As outlined above, one of the differences between continental and English Caroline Minuscule is that English minims tend to have feet. The slide below shows a continental Gospel book from Echternach on the left (London, British Library, Egerton MS 608), and the Grimbald Gospels (London, British Library, Additional MS 34890), made in Canterbury in the early 11th century, on the right. The detail shows the difference in the treatment of the minims.
By the end of the 11th century, Caroline Minuscule begins to get more angular. A transitional style develops in the 12th century, with more oval letter forms, and, under the influence of English Caroline Minuscule, greater attention to the feet of minims. These features combine to give Protogothic what Michelle Brown calls its “prickly angular appearance.” The example on the left is from a 12th-century French copy of Suetonius’s De Vita Cesarum (London, British Library, Egerton MS 3055). The one on the right is from a collection of theological texts (London, British Library, Royal MS 6 B vi), probably made at Rochester in the 12th century, and shows the English feature described by Brown as the “application of sloping feet to minims”: see the large sample from the same folio of Royal 6 B vi for a close-up of this feature.
From the 12th century, Protogothic becomes more square, more compact, and shows what Brown calls “increasing elaboration in the treatment of minims.” The result is the script often called Gothic, though as we discussed in class, there are both textualis and cursiva developments of Protogothic.
Just as Caroline spread in part because of Charlemagne’s educational and governmental reforms, and Protogothic was connected to the spread of documentary culture and governance under the Angevins, Gothic was associated with another key educational and cultural moment, the rise of the universities and the resultant rise in demand for books and the spread of book production beyond the monasteries. We discussed the pecia system, whereby libraires (stationers) received authorised copies of important texts, and farmed them out in sections for rapid copying.
Gothic Textualis (Textura) has 4 varieties, in a hierarchy from most to least elaborate/ laborious to produce. These are
The slide uses the Queen Mary Psalter (British Library, Royal MS 2 B vii), made in London from 1310 – 1320, to illustrate the highest-grade Gothic textura, often called Textualis Prescissa. The feet of minims end on and parallel to the baseline; other features to notice include the two-storey a; the wedge on the shoulder of the tall s, and the slim hook on the i.
The example of Textualis Quadrata from the Alphonso or Tenison Psalter (London, British Library, Additional MS 24686) shows that this script is still a high-grade one. Here, the minims end in diamond-shaped feet.
Features we discussed included
- Tironian “et” instead of ampersand, above
- applied serifs (rather than just upward curves, from a single stroke)
- biting, when bowls of two rounded letters face each other and merge, as in domine, oculus, and uidebo in the close-ups below
- how round letters such as o are made up of straight strokes, something you can see particularly clearly in the free-standing o in oculos
The text to the right and below comes from a copy of Gerald of Wales’s De topographia Hiberniae, made in England in the 13th century (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 720). Some of the minims have serifs applied, while others are just rounded off.
We looked closely at the sample below, beginning with the last 2 words in the first line:
maiores qui uulgarit(er) rati uocantur.
(per) imprecac(i)o(ne)m s(an)c(t)i yuori ep(iscop)i cuius forte
libros corroserant p(ro)rsus expulsi
Gerald is telling the story of St Ivor, a bishop in the province of Leinster who cursed the local rats because they gnawed his books, thus expelling them, and preventing them from breeding or living in the area thereafter.
The lowest-grade Gothic Textualis is called Rotunda. In this form, the feet of the minims are produced by an upwards curve of the pen, a faster and simpler approach than either the flat-angle pen of Prescissa, or the separately-applied serifs of Quadrata or Semi-Quadrata. The example to the right comes from the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey (London, British Library, Cotton MS Faustina B ix). While this page is an example of Rotunda, you can also find other scripts by leafing through the digitisation. Look for
Protogothic: fols. 2r – 13v, 15r – 21r
Textualis: fols. 21v – 42v, 43v – 47r, 55r – 60v, 64r – 69v
Rotunda: fols. 43r, 47r – 49r, 54rv, 61r – 63r, 70r-75v
Scottish cursive book script: 49v – 53v, 63v
The examples above are all forms of Gothic Textualis. The other main category of Gothic script is Cursiva. There are many forms of this script. We looked at a few examples of English cursivas and related scripts.
Cursiva Anglicana Formata
Anglicana Formata is the highest grade Anglicana Cursiva. The example to the left is taken from the Simeon Manuscript (London, British Library, Additional MS 22283), fol. 1r. This is a collection of homilies, poetry, and prose treatises, made in the late 14th century. It is the work of three scribes, one of whom also copied part of the related Vernon Manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Eng. poet. A 1), described here and in full digital facsimile here.
The slide below (a detail of the same folio above) circles some of the characteristics of Cursiva: look at the loops on the d, h, and l, for example, and the long descenders on s and f.
The manuscript of the N-Town plays (London, British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian D viii) was copied between the second half of the fifteenth and the first quarter of the 16th centuries. It is a lower grade of Anglicana Cursiva. The slide below shows some of the characteristics of its script.
Abrah(a)m my name is kydde
(And) patryarke of age ful olde
(And) 3it be ye grace of god is bredde
In my(n) olde age a chylde full bolde
Ysaac lo her(e) his name is tolde
My swete sone ya(t) stondyth me by
Among(ys) all chylderyn y(at) walkyn on wolde
A louelyer chylde is non trewly.
Secretary is still a cursiva; by the end of the 14th century, English scribes picked up a new continental style, and by 15th century, they were using it mostly for English vernacular authors like Chaucer and Gower. The image to the right comes from Jean Creton’s Histoire rimée de Richard II (La Prinse et mort du roy Richart) (London, British Library, Harley MS 1319), made in France at the beginning of the 15th century.
Note the angularity and the significant contrast between bold and light strokes, in the detail below.
Note the pointed descenders on f, p, q, and the long s. Important letter forms are the single-compartment a; the 2-stroke c; the d whose loop is often angular at start of word; the open-tail g with a horizontal head-stroke; and a kidney-shaped s at word ends.
Bastard scripts combine features of textualis and cursiva. The example to the left (London, British Library, Harley MS 4012) has the sloping aspect and characteristic ascenders and descenders of Secretary, but regular aspect of textualis. Also note that scripts like this are sometimes called ‘hybrid,” though that term is more properly used for a textualis with a few cursiva features.
This particular manuscript is not fully digitized. It is a collection of religious and moral treatises in English, made in the east of England around 1460.
Bâtarde goes by many other names, including Lettre Bourguignonne, Cursiva Bastarda, Cursiva Formata Hybrida, and Lettre de Fourme. Brown writes that it “represents the highest grade of cursive script, with the greatest influence from textualis, to be found on the Continent” (110). It is associated with the Burgundian court. The image to the right shows Jean Froissart (c. 1337 – c. 1405) presenting a copy of his Chroniques to Gaston Phébus, Count of Foix (1331 – 1391).
There are many lavish manuscripts of Froissart’s Chroniques, which recount part of the Hundred Years’ War. The copy to the right (London, British Library, Royal MS 14 D v) was made in the Netherlands in the last quarter of the 15th century. This manuscript is not yet fully digitized. There are two fully-digitized volumes on the British Library site (Royal MS 18 E i and Royal MS 18 E ii). The Online Froissart hosts a number of digital facsimiles from other manuscripts itself, and also has a list pointing to digitized copies to be found elsewhere. Note that funding for this project ended in 2010, which is a VERY long time ago in digital terms: some of the links have gone dead, and there are doubtless new digitizations, but the site can still be very useful if you are interested in learning more about Froissart.