An Introduction to Palaeography for Scribes

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester

So, you've been studying the art of calligraphy. You've learned some of the basic hands, and perhaps are developing one or more as your specialty. You've also done a few scrolls or other such calligraphed pieces, and are wondering about ways (besides lots of practice!) to make your creations look more medieval....

Welcome to the world of palaeography. Palaeography, quite simply, is the study of the writing of the past. Though the field as a whole encompasses everything from Egyptian hieroglyphics all the way up to the elegant hands of the Victorians, we'll be concerned here with the branch of most interest to students of the European Middle Ages: Latin palaeography. Latin was the language of learning in the Middle Ages, and a good proportion of the works that scribes look to as exemplars were written in that language. Much of the knowledge I'll discuss will transfer well to vernacular writing, since in general the same hands were used.

This past year I was privileged to participate in the Medieval Latin Palaeography course offered through the Pontifical Institute for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. Though I personally have done little calligraphy since high school, this wonderful course has encouraged me to once again pick up my pen and try out some of the hands studied. It has also given me a few insights into how any scribe can pursue research into either individual hands or into the field as a whole, and made me view calligraphy in the Current Middle Ages with a whole new eye.

At the end of this article, you will find a bibliography. This will hopefully be of aid to you as you research the evolution of medieval script. The rest of the article will be confined to general observations which might be of help to scribes. If what you wish is a more detailed overview of the history of script, I can do no better than to recommend Bernhard Bischoff's Latin Palaeography (see the bibliography).

A Brief Overview of the Development of Script in Western Europe

The first scripts to use what we would consider "modern" letterforms (I use the quotation marks, because certain letters always retained some flexibility in the way they were formed) were the Romans. Inscriptions on monuments were usually done in a majuscule (or capital) script which we now term Square Capitals, Quadrata or simply "Roman Capitals". For writing on papyrus scrolls (and later, on parchment), the Romans used these letters as well, but more often a hand generally known as Rustica or "Rustic capitals". Finally, for short notes written in wax tablets, personal letters, and other everyday usage, the Romans developed a cursive script, Roman cursive. Cursive scripts, while they lacked the legibility of calligraphic (upright) scripts, were widely used because of the time saved in writing them. While this script is virtually illegible to the untrained eye, it would have a profound influence on the development of script henceforth.

Uncial script began to replace rustic capitals as the main script in use around the fourth or fifth century AD, and by the sixth century the Roman letterforms were relegated mostly to use for headings or titles. Half-uncial, the first minuscule script, also began its rise about this time. A minuscule script was written between four ruled lines, rather than two, and is easily recognized by the modern eye as having upper and lower case letters; the lower-case letters have prominent ascenders (on letters such as l, b, d, etc.) and descenders (on p, q, and g, for example).

Next on the evolutionary ladder were the national bookhands: Insular, Visigothic, Beneventan, and Merovingian script. These scripts evolved from the uncial scripts under the influence of the Roman cursive scripts. Insular, which developed around the seventh century, was practiced in the British isles, but was also imported to Europe by missionary monks. In England, Insular was used until the twelfth century, but it survived until the nineteenth century in parts of Ireland. Visigothic script is the name given to the Spanish national hand. It developed in the late seventh or early eighth century in the Iberian peninsula and was practiced until about the thirteenth century. Beneventan, the national script of Italy (or more properly, of the Duchy of Benevento, in the south part of Italy), was practiced between the middle of the eighth century until the thirteenth century, though a few very late (16th century) examples have been found in isolated areas. Finally, Merovingian hands were practiced in France and western Germany, and date from the mid-eighth century to the early ninth century. These include the Luxeuil, Laon, Corbie, and Chelles scripts. All of the national bookhands also had cursive versions. These hands are most noteworthy for their great number of ligatures ( joined letter combinations)--especially the Merovingian hands -- and for the increasing use of abbreviations.

The Caroline minuscule script would eventually displace all of the national bookhands except Beneventan. This elegant and legible script was first used during the lifetime of Charlemagne (in the ninth century) and fairly quickly replaced the Merovingian hands in Frankish-controlled lands. There was a conscious effort to cut down on the number of abbreviations, and only a few ligatures survived. By the twelfth century, it had spread to most of the rest of Europe, though each region wrote the script a little bit differently.

It was around this time that one can note the first signs of the development of the Gothic script in France. Gradually, scribes began making the Caroline letters more and more angular, as a series of broken strokes, rather than smooth, flowing strokes. They also began a practice known as "biting", in which adjoining letters with rounded parts (bowls) would be shoved together so that the bowls actually touched. Gothic script is also noteworthy for its large number of abbreviations. This script had wholly replaced Caroline by the thirteenth century. Gothic cursive scripts also began their rise in this period, under the influence of charter and notary hands. The final development of Gothic was the appearance of hybrid (or Bastard) scripts in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, in which elements of both cursive and calligraphic Gothic hands were intermixed.

There is no one single "Gothic script". The quality of the book the script was used in, the purpose of the book, the date of the book, and the region it was produced in all affected the way the script looked on the page. Generally, the more expensive the book, the more calligraphic and clear the script. Each region also produced its own versions of Gothic--for example, Italian Gothic (also called Rotunda) tends to be rounded and very legible, while German gothic is distinctive for the number of fine hairline finishing strokes on letters.

The final hand to be developed before the advent of printing was the Humanistic script. Humanist scribes were interested in copying classical ideals, and they mistakenly believed that the Caroline minuscule was the hand used by their Roman ancestors. Thus, the Humanistic script is simply an elegant, clear adaptation of the Caroline script. These scribes also developed an elegant, more cursive version of this script, which they termed Italic. These two scripts were widely adopted by early printers; indeed, our current Times Roman and Italic types are direct descendants of the Humanistic scripts.

Documenting Script

If you are interested in entering the calligraphy category of an Arts and Sciences competition, or are interested in creating a scroll or document specific to a particular time and place, it would be well worth your time to find a research library with a good collection of manuscript facsimile collections. The two best are the Codices latini antiquiores (commonly called the "CLA") and Facsimiles of Ancient Manuscripts by the New Palaeographical Society (both are listed in the bibliography). These produce single pages from various manuscripts in order to illustrate trends in the development of script. Script (not illumination) is the focus of these collections. When you examine these facsimiles, you might want to keep the following in mind:

1. The general aspect of the script. Not all scripts are the same height; some (like Luxeuil) are angular and narrow, while others (such as Uncial) are rounded and full. Spacing (both internal and between words) is important as well. Often the earlier the example in the history of a particular hand, the less clear the spacing. Nice, even spaces between words may or may not be correct!

The use of ligatures is part of this. In some hands (such as half-uncial), ligatures--one or more letters within a word joined together--were mostly used as a space-saving measure towards the ends of lines. In other hands (Beneventan, for example), certain letters were always joined in ligature, no matter where they were located in a line. Still other hands (Luxeuil, for one) feature a dazzling variety of possible ligatures--some used more often than others.

2. Harmonizing the script with the style of illumination. Common sense dictates that using late Gothic with Celtic knotwork is probably a no-no. But this problem is more subtle, and only observation and study will cure it. (Along the way, you may pick up a lot of incidental information about costume!)

3. Layout. How does the script look on the page? Is there a lot of blank space around the text? How does this change with the amount of illumination that is added? Are there columns, or is there a single main body of text? This, more than any aspect of calligraphy other than the script itself, is responsible for giving a medieval feel to a piece of work.

Two often - overlooked aspects of medieval script

1. Mixed hands. I seldom see SCA works which utilize more than one script. Here's an example: Book headings in medieval manuscripts were often done in square capitals. Chapter headings would be done in uncials, the first few sentences perhaps in half-uncials, and then the text in the main script. The effect created is of larger letters at the top, followed by slightly smaller letters, and then, finally, of smaller letters still. Very nice, and very medieval!

2. Abbreviations were used during every period in the medieval era, but were most prevalent during the era (12th-15th centuries) in which Gothic predominated. Abbreviations allowed the scribe to copy faster, an important advantage in an era when the rate of book production escalated rapidly. The number of abbreviations used would vary depending on the text: Those intended for "deluxe" purposes--such as books of hours or display Bibles--would likely only use the most basic abbreviations, while works intended for more utilitarian use and which were produced in volume would be thick with them.

The basic principles of abbreviation apply to the Latin language first and foremost, (and it must be remembered that the majority of manuscripts before 1400 or so are in Latin) but some were carried over to documents in the vernacular, especially to charters and notarial documents (the latter had its own system of abbreviation, known as Tironian notes, which is another article unto itself). However, the basics of abbreviation are adaptable to any language. In brief, you may abbreviate by contraction (in which letters drop out of a word: dominus => dns, with a long line over the top of the abbreviation, to indicate that letters are missing) or by suspension (a common practice is to drop the last letter or letters of a word and replace them with an apostrophe or other symbol). There are also symbols which stand for groups of letters ("9" before the beginning of a word, for instance, stands for the prefix "con"). A look at one of the books on abbreviations in the bibliography should give you visual proof of the way abbreviations work in Latin; these principles may then be adapted to any language you choose.

Getting Access

If you are not affiliated with a university, this need not mean you cannot get access to university and research libraries; however, you may have to jump through a few hoops along the way. While seeing actual manuscripts may be difficult (but not impossible) for the non-academic, many libraries are willing to let amateur researchers use their collections of non-rare books under certain conditions. You usually will not be allowed to check out books, so be ready to spend time in the library. If you are making a special trip to research, you might wish to write ahead; a professionally-worded cover letter describing your interest and what you wish to see can go a long way towards proving your seriousness. It's probably best to describe yourself as a "professional calligrapher" in the letter (many SCA scribes I know do fit this description, even if calligraphy is not their primary occupation). Since attitudes towards the SCA in the academic world vary widely, I would advise not mentioning your membership in the letter. If you still have a problem getting access, a letter of reference from someone in academia, preferably a professor, will in most cases get around the most stringent of restrictions. Since many research libraries house one-of-a-kind collections, their caution is warranted. When you arrive, dress casually, but neatly, and, if you have not sent a letter ahead, introduce yourself. Depending on the institution, you could be granted anything from full access to the stacks to having to request books to be brought out for you and anything from a one-day pass to a photo ID which is more or less permanent. Don't be afraid to ask the librarians if you get stuck or cannot find what you want. Be kind to the books, say thanks, and you'll be welcomed back the next time.

A final note

How "medieval" your creations look will also rely in part on the materials you use. Writing with a Speedball pen on notebook paper is different than writing on good quality rag paper with a dip pen, which is in turn different from writing on vellum with a quill pen (perhaps with homemade ink made from oak galls). Unless you are using the same materials used by the original scribes, you cannot expect to exactly reproduce their results. Now I'm not suggesting that everyone throw out all of their modern equipment (especially for practice!), but if you get a chance to try out authentic medieval materials, jump at it. (Even simply fingering real parchment or period paper is instructive). You'll probably learn things that will help your works with modern materials achieve a more "medieval" feel.


This bibliography is a condensed version of the basic bibliography for the Medieval Latin Palaeography Course taught at the Pontifical Institute for Medieval Studies by Prof. Virginia Brown. The comments are my own, however.

Aris, Rutherford B. Explicatio formarum litterarum: The Unfolding of Letterforms from the First Century to the Fifteenth Century. (St. Paul, Minn., 1990)

Bischoff, Bernhard. Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages. (English translation). (Cambridge, 1990)

Brown, Michelle P. A Guide to Western Historical Scripts. (Toronto, 1990)

Brown, Michelle P. A Guide to Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts. (J. Paul Getty Museum, 1994).

John, J.J. "Latin Palaeography", in Medieval Studies: An Introduction , ed. James M. Powell, 2nd ed. (Syracuse, 1992).

Ullman, B.I. Ancient Writing and Its Influence. , 2nd ed. (New York 1969, Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching 10, Toronto, 1980, 1989).

These books should be enough for the beginning palaeographer to get his/her feet wet in the area. For further articles and books on specific scripts, you may wish to consult Leonard E. Boyle, Medieval Latin Palaeography: A Bibliographical Introduction (U. of Toronto Press, 1984)


Facsimile Collections

While many of the books in the preceding section do contain manuscript facsimile pages, to see multiple examples in a full-size format, you should consult one of the facsimile collections. This is the best way to get a "feel" for the look of medieval manuscripts--how a deluxe manuscript looks in comparison with a schoolbook; how Gothic varies from England to Italy; or to appreciate the nuances between Corbie a-b and Laon a-z scripts, for example. The following two are the most famous and most complete, but a good research library should stock additional, more focused facsimile collections. These two collections also do you the favour of transliterating the Latin text and noting where abbreviations have been expanded.

Lowe, E.A. Codices latini antiquiores. A Palaeographical Guide to Latin Manuscripts Prior to the Ninth Century , 11 vols. and supplement vol. (Oxford, 1934-71) ("CLA")

The New Palaeographical Society. Facsimiles of Ancient Manuscripts : First Series (London 1903-30) Second Series (London, 1913-30) (covers 400 BC-1535 AD.)


These are the two standard works on the subject of abbreviations in medieval Latin texts.

Capelli, Adriano. Dizionario di abbreviature latine ed italiane, 6th ed. (Milan, 1994) The Italian introduction to this manual has been translated: A. Capelli, Elements of Abbreviation in Medieval Latin , trans. D. Heimann and R. Kay, (Lawrence, KS 1982)

Lindsay, W.M. Notae latinae. An account of Abbreviations in Latin Manuscripts of the Early Minuscule Period (c. 700-850) (Cambridge, 1915; reprint Hildesheim, 1965)

Copyright 1995 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.