Home Page

Stefan's Florilegium


This document is also available in: text or RTF formats.

scrpt-develop-art - 6/20/00


"Societal Influences on Script Development - Early Christian Uncial through Chancery in the Renaissance" by Mst. Aquilanne Jessica Grace.


NOTE: See also the files: alphabets-msg, Paleo-Scribes-art, calligraphy-msg, callig-suppl-msg, quills-msg, writing-desks-msg, inks-msg, iwandpc-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org




              Early Christian Uncial through Chancery in the Renaissance


by Mst. Aquilanne Jessica Grace (Dory Grace)























Early Christian Uncial through Chancery Cursive in the Renaissance




      A few years ago, during my early days as an art major in college, I was introduced to a medieval recreationist group called the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a non-profit educational organization that studies and re-creates the middle ages.  I was enchanted by the romanticism involved, delighted by the costumes, and I enjoyed the camaraderie of the unique and diversified characters who were members.


      As I entered my junior year in college, certain domestic and financial considerations caused me to decide to take a sabbatical from academia, and make a geographic move.  Idaho Falls had an active SCA group.  I had been to a few of their club events, and liked the people, so I decided to move there.


      My new SCA friends knew I had studied art and encouraged me to get involved in scriveners arts.  At first I balked, for I was a student of fine art, not a calligrapher and decorative illuminater.  But eventually I gave in and provided the group with scrolls bearing my first attempts at calligraphy.  Those bore little resemblance to any actual historic hand.  As time went by, I became more and more interested in recreating authentic scripts.  I looked for books with facsimile pages from medieval manuscripts.  I found instructional books on calligraphy, and sought instruction from SCA scribes.   As I learned one script and became somewhat proficient at it, I moved on to a different hand. Somewhere along the way, I started to really enjoy recreating these historical hands and the illumination that went with them.  I became interested in matching the proper style of illumination with its period script, and learning about the original tools, materials, and techniques used by medieval scribes. I tried to familiarize myself with the appropriate time periods for each script.  As is usually the case with learning, the more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew.  A recent question that prompted a slightly different angle of inquiry was, how did each of these distinct scripts evolve from the preceding scripts, and why?


      Sometimes I have wondered about the validity of pursuing art forms, such as calligraphy and illumination, that are generally considered more craft than fine art.  But when all is said and done, who is to say what 'art' really is?  If it is self expression, draftsmanship, or pure aesthetics, who can deny that it exists in the graceful curves of an Irish insular uncial, or the strong majestic designs of a Gothic textura, or the whimsical flourishes on the serifs of a batarde? Daniel V. Thompson, in The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, makes the comment that "...we must make a conscious effort to judge medieval works by their own standards, and to reject the concept of the 'minor art' in dealing with a time when every manufactured thing was a work potentially of art."  I think it is safe to say that each scribe responsible for a work such as the Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels, or  the Tres Riche Heures was an artist in his own right, and as expressive in his work as his period, materials, tools and techniques allowed.  The beauty of any art form, whether the mark is left by a chisel, a brush, or a quill, remains a constant and timeless quality.





      The term "calligraphy" means "beautiful writing", taken from the Greek words 'kallos', for beauty and 'graphein', to write.      When the 20th century person hears the term "calligraphy", he may immediately think of 'Italic' writing, 'Old English', or possibly even 'Celtic' letters.  These calligraphic styles, which are often chosen for wedding invitations, newspaper ads, certificates, and various other special purposes, have a rich and lively history.   Present-day calligraphy is done mostly for aesthetic purposes, and penned by a relatively small group of enthusiasts.  In the days before the printing press, however, writing legibly by hand was an indispensable necessity.  The hand-written word was the only means of producing and reproducing books, legal documents, business transactions, et cetera.  The finest examples of writing from historical manuscripts inspired the modern term "calligraphy".


      Script development in the centuries before the printing press was intricately interwoven with social developments.  With penmanship as the sole means of precise communication and permanent record, the human factor was ubiquitous.   Religion, politics, commerce, philosophy, economics:  all play a role in the molding of new scripts over the passage of time.  The largest bodies of early written works were religious in nature.   Some large-scale text renovations implemented in relatively short periods of time were the result of a few strong individual influences.  Nostalgia in the Renaissance saw the revival of a then several hundred year old script.  Increasing commerce and heavier demands on scribes would cause this script to evolve into the script we know as 'italic'.


      The various scripts to be discussed each have a variety of names.  Each script, while in vogue, had names given it by the scribes who used it.  Some scripts gained names from observations made by individuals from their particular era. Some were given names by scholars in the Renaissance.  Modern paleographers have fashioned even more versions of script names based on their own various criteria.  Some of these variations will be mentioned as each major script is examined.


      From the fall of the Roman empire in about the 4th c. A.D. to the Renaissance, the shape of calligraphic scripts underwent several dramatic changes. This paper will explore those changes and attempt to address the reasons behind them.





      Considering the great variation in scripts over 1500 years, it may be somewhat surprising to learn that materials and tools remained relatively unchanged.  In order to give some insight into the production of a manuscript up to the point before any illumination might be added, this chapter will address the materials and tools used by scribes.


      The earliest examples of a literal form of writing, called cuneiform, originated in the Sumerian settlements of the Fertile Crescent some 5,500 years ago.  These were the result of stylized forms of picture-writing which had evolved into a set of phonetic symbols, an alphabet.  The writing was done by pressing the wedge-shaped tip of a stylus into soft clay, which was then baked to harden it. The Egyptians brought about the use of the reed brush with ink on papyrus. The papyrus was made by thinly slicing the papyrus plant, a type of reed that grew along the rivers, and laying the slices side by side, slightly overlapping.  Another layer was laid on top of the first, at right angles to it.  The papyrus was then hammered flat, and allowed to dry.  (The plant's juices have adhesive qualities which would bind the layers together.)  Sheets were then smoothed and trimmed, and glued end to end with starch to form strips long enough to roll.


      Papyrus was exported from Egypt for the use of scribes throughout the Mediterranean from at least 3000 BC.  However, by the second century BC, shortages began to occur which lead to an increase in price.  An alternative was sought.  


      Examples of animal skins ( parchment * ) used for writing survive from Egypt from around 2500 BC.  The Dead Sea Scrolls, found in the desert of Judea in 1947, are probably the most famous leather documents to have survived from ancient time. Parchment has several advantages over papyrus.   It is more durable than the fragile papyrus, and some types of skins can be prepared for writing on both sides.  Parchment surfaces are also much smoother, and lend themselves more readily to the application of ink by a pen.  Nonetheless, it took several hundred years before parchment would begin to take the place of papyrus.  As late as 273 AD, during the Roman occupation of Egypt, a Roman leader boasted that an entire army could be equipped and supported on the revenues from papyrus trade alone.  In a societies ruled by tradition, progressive inventions can be slow to catch on, especially in the presence of strong economic pressures. Early parchment-making techniques were somewhat crude.  If improperly tanned, the skins would be difficult to handle and might begin to smell bad.  


      *  A brief note on terminology:  True parchment is made from sheepskin, and vellum is made from calfskin.  However, skins from goats, gazelle, antelope, stags, and even ostriches were used.  There is also the term 'abortivum', meaning uterine vellum, which was supposedly made from still-born calves.  Rabbit and squirrel skins may also have been used.  For the sake of simplicity, I will be using 'parchment' as a generic term referring to the treated skins of animals used for writing purposes.


      Parchment in the Middle Ages was a standard article of commerce, prepared by specialists. The men who used it did not necessarily know much about how it was made. Generally, skins were soaked in clean water, then soaked again in a broth of lime and water, and the hair or wool rubbed or pulled off.   They were then rinsed, stretched to dry, and scraped smooth.


      Once the scribe received a piece of parchment, further preparations were necessary. The parchment would need to be trimmed to the proper shape and size, and pounced (rubbed with powdered pumice or chalk) to make it take the ink nicely. Pouncing gives the surface an even 'tooth' and removes grease.  Then the general layout of the page would be determined and the page would be ruled. Ruling lines could be drawn by scoring the surface with a hard point or pricking small holes with an awl or a knife point, which made it unnecessary to rule the other side separately.  Lines were also drawn with pen and faint, diluted ink.  The use of lead 'pencils' became common after the 12th century.  The scribe responsible for the main body of work of calligraphy would also leave spaces for illuminated initials and rubrication, sometimes with lightly written instructions to the illuminator.                    


      Parchment was an ideal surface for the application of ink by pen.  It appears safe to assume that the quill pen came into gradual use with the establishment of Roman formal capital letters, of graduated thick and thin strokes, and the supplanting of papyrus by parchment as a writing material about 190 B.C.  The quill pen was the principal writing instrument during the Middle Ages.  Pens were made from the quills of pelicans, swans, geese, pheasants, eagles, peacocks, and ravens.  Pens made from the quills of swans, geese, turkeys, ducks, and crows were accepted as the best for writing and drawing.  


      Quills naturally have a greasy external membrane and an internal pith, and are inclined to be soft.  To prepare a quill for writing, it was first heated (which shriveled the pith), customarily in hot ashes, and scraped to remove the outer membrane.  Cooling and time help to harden the quill.  (A variety of methods have been used to prepare quills for use as pens, and are too numerous and lengthy to include here.)  Two long bevels are cut into the quill, a split made, the nib cut first vertically, then a final bevel to control the action of the ink flowing onto the paper.


      Two kinds of black ink were known and used in the Middle Ages.  One was a suspension of carbon and the other a suspension of a black organic salt of iron mixed with other salts in solution which became black after use.  Lampblack, the soot from a flame collected on a cold surface, and vine-charcoal, made from grape vine sprigs burnt and ground, made up the majority of carbon based inks. The carbon base was mixed with water and glair or gum to make a liquid ink. Inks made from iron salts came from gall-nuts.  As a result of the sting of certain insects, oak-trees develop little round, nut-like swellings called galls or gall-nuts.  These gall-nuts contain tannic and gallic acids which can be soaked out of the dried galls with water.  This solution is clear and substantially colourless, but when mixed with a solution of an iron salt it becomes purplish-black, and even blacker with age.  The word "ink" comes from the Latin ''''encaustum', which means "burnt in".  The colouring matter of the iron ink is formed to a large extent by oxidation in the fibers of the paper or parchment after use.


      Paper was invented as early as 100 AD in China, and its manufacture remained a closely guarded secret for some six hundred years.  In 751 AD the Moslem governor of Samarkand is reported to have taken Chinese prisoners, some of whom were skilled paper-makers.  Whether their knowledge was extracted through torture or an offer of setting up business in the city, the technique of paper-making gradually spread to other Islamic cities and began to displace parchment for religious texts.


      By the 12th century, the Arabs had introduced paper to Spain and Sicily.  Linen rags were a main ingredient in the making of pulp for paper, and paper was sometimes referred to as "cloth parchment".  From Sicily the art of paper-making spread to Italy, and Italian craftsmen established it elsewhere in Europe.  This writing material of un-Christian origins was slow to be adopted in the production of Christian works.  However, by the 15th century linen and cloth rags were plentiful, new materials for use in making paper pulp were being experimented with, and the invention of the printing press made paper a commodity in high demand.                    


      Various other tools and materials were used by scribes in the Middle Ages.  Diptychs inlaid with wax were written upon with styluses as a means of making notes which could later be transferred to parchment for permanent record.  The wax could then be smoothed over with a warm iron for reuse.  Corrections on parchment were made by lightly scraping ink away with a very sharp knife and then smoothing the surface with gentle burnishing.  Portions of text could be made to stand out by using red or blue pigments.  (The use of red for writing in saints' days in calendars is where we get the expression 'red-letter day'.) Over all, the use of quill and ink on parchment, with few variations, was the cornerstone of manuscript production throughout the Middle Ages.





      The Roman Square Capital script is the inspiration for all the ensuing European scripts.  Rome was a literate city, and letters of school-boys, as well as writings of men of standing such as Pliny the Younger, have survived.  The customary posting of inscriptions in public places would indicate that they were expected to be read.  The Roman Square Capital functioned as a formal hand. But being so very straight and precise, it lent itself more to being chiseled in stone than being written on a page.                      


      Roman Square Capitals were used for only the finest manuscripts because, due to the need for precision, the letters were so slow to write.  While this particular script was replaced with other derivations, it was revived in the medieval era for headings and titles and important introductory text.


      By the first century, scribes were lettering with more stylistic tendencies.  By tilting the pen away from the horizontal and making less frequent changes in the angle, they were able to produce each letter more quickly.  This also narrowed the letters, taking less space.  This informal version of the Roman Square Capitals is called Roman Rustic, and by the 4th century was fairly standardized.


      In the year 311 AD an event occurred which was to have an important effect on writing. In this year the Emperor Constantine proclaimed Christianity as the official religion of the Empire.  Up to this time, Christianity had been only one of a number of faiths which had flourished in the late Roman world, but now, with official blessing upon it, it was to spread and overcome most other religions. Roman religion had possessed no sacred books and relied almost entirely on traditional ceremonial activities.  Christianity was different.  Christianity had a body of written works which was revered as the Word of the One God, and contained the works of His prophets.


      With the breakdown of Roman power, Christianity survived intact.  It had the advantage of government approval and the strength of continuity insured by written record.  Membership grew and Christianity spread out along the lines of communication of the late Roman Empire, taking with it the vellum codex, the quill pen, the current forms of script, and the Bible.


      Roman Rustics were easily written, easy to read, and were used for important writings.  Unfortunately, however, this was a 'pagan' script.  The church wanted a 'Christian' script for their sacred writings.  This Christian script needed to be different enough to set Christian works apart from pagan works, yet had to be clearly legible to a populace that was used to a pagan script. Growing membership and increased missionary activities demanded a script that could be written easily while still retaining a majesty appropriate to the textual material.


      During the second century, the greatest amount of writing had been done in missionary outposts in Egypt and north Africa rather than in Rome.  Here, where the small portion of the populace who could read and write did so in both Latin and Greek, Latin had become the literary language of the church.  Because of the considerable Greek influence, and the adoption of some peculiarly Greek letter shapes, a script resulted which retained an impressiveness while permitting the scribe to work at a comfortable speed.  A particularly noticeable Greek touch, popular since the 3rd century B.C. was the graceful rounding of letters.  By the early 3rd century, a new script emerged.  It evolved from the combination of the stately Roman Square Capital and Roman Rustic, and graceful curves from the Greek alphabet.  This impressive hand, known as Uncial, was adopted by the church as its official script.  Although the first Christian manuscripts in Rome must certainly have been written in Roman Square Capitals or Roman Rustic, all extant examples of early Christian works are done in Uncial.  (The Church may very well have ordered that manuscripts written in pagan scripts be destroyed to maintain continuity of dignity in their sacred works.)


      By the 4th century, Uncial had become a fully developed script for books.  Roman Square Capital and Roman Rustic had fallen into disuse for all but titles.  From the 5th century, up through the 8th century, Uncial was the principal book script for Christian works.  


      Uncial started out as a majuscule script, written without the encumbrance of serifs or elongated ascenders or descenders.  Capitals were achieved by merely enlarging, and sometimes consequently exaggerating, Uncial letters.  More punctuation also came into use at the time of Uncial writing.  A point was used to indicate a brief pause, and a colon or a colon with a dash were used for a complete stop.  In the 6th century a slanted line took the place of the point, the question mark appeared as an S-shape drawn sideways, and the quotation mark came into use. Designed for comprehension as well as impressiveness and speed, the use of the Uncial script as a vehicle in spreading the faith abroad made it a vital component in written communication.


      Generally, once a script had developed and its use became accepted and widespread, scribes had a tendency to start adding artistic flourishes and embellishments, resulting in the script becoming more and more calligraphic.  As one scholar put it:  "The striving after beauty in handwriting is as natural to the accomplished penman as the striving after beauty in designing is to the artist."  As a script grew more stylistic, its use in a simpler or baser form became less aesthetically acceptable.  The 'aesthetically acceptable' script became even more painstaking and time-consuming to write.  At the same time, however, the demand for books necessitated more rapid writing.  To gain the required speed in writing, one of two things could be done.  The existing script could be simplified, taking it back to its original form, or a new, less complicated script could be adopted.  There seem to be no examples of the deliberate re-simplification of a script.  Thus, as an overly ornate hand degenerated into decadence, another, more functional, script would rise to take its place.  Eventually this simpler replacement script would undergo the same metamorphosis.  This pattern, described by Marc Drogin as the theory of the rise and fall of scripts, and would repeat itself with few variations until the advent of mechanical printing.


        Roman Square Capital, a very exact and time-consuming hand, was replaced by Roman Rustic, a cursive form of its precursor.  As Roman Rustic became popular and talented scribes added their artistic touches and flourishes, it in turn became more time-consuming to write.  Roman Rustic was consequently replaced by Uncial.  Uncial, in turn, gained importance and accumulated enough extra artistic weight to finally topple it into disuse.            


      By the 7th and 8th centuries so much additional artistry and embellishment had been added to the basic Uncial, that the script became what is called Artificial Uncial, or Imitation Uncial.  By the 9th century, it had become so ornate that it was reserved only for special occasions; monumental manuscripts of the greatest importance, 'incipits' (from the Latin for "here begins...", the first sentence of a book or chapter), and the like.  By the 11th century Artificial Uncial had risen above any functionality as a script, and was used only occasionally for such things as versals.  Scribes had long since been forced to replace it.                        


      Towards the end of the 8th century, the Uncial script became increasingly impractical to use.  Decorative treatment made it difficult to write with any alacrity, and its spaciousness was wasteful of vellum.  Obviously, a script was needed that could be written more rapidly and with economy of material.  An informal cursive hand already existed for mundane use in business and day-to-day affairs.  These cursive influences were beginning to merge with the more formal hands.  This mixed writing, incorporating more pronounced ascenders and descenders, lead to the formation of the minuscule (small letter) script for use as a book hand.  (Minuscule letters were the original 'lower case' characters, and as such have been referred to as "the great medieval contribution to writing.")              


      This minuscule script was popular for less important writings as early as the 3rd century because it was easier to write, demanded less ability, and took less space. It is known as Roman Half-Uncial, Semi-Uncial, or Minor Uncial.  It is also occasionally given regional names where variations are discerned.  Originating as a cursive scrawl, examples appear in Uncial writings as glosses (notes in the margin or between the lines of the original text).          


      By the beginning of the 6th century Uncial was already well on its way to becoming unwieldy, and the Half-Uncial began to appear in minor manuscripts.  As Christianity spread across Europe, monks carried with them the written Word. Major manuscripts, written in a majestic Uncial, must have been somewhat outnumbered by minor manuscripts and various personal notes written in Half-Uncial.  The desire to impress would-be converts with the importance of the church's teachings by presenting it in glorified execution is obvious.  On the other hand, a monk traveling to far reaches could be beset with any number of unfortunate occurrences.  Time-consuming, and therefore expensive, a whole manuscript done in an Artificial Uncial was a valuable item.  Sending out more than a necessary amount of such work would be folly.  It makes sense that the larger bulk of written material carried and used daily by missionaries would have been in the more economic Half-Uncial.


      By the 7th century the development of the earlier rounded scripts gets a bit scattered and difficult to follow.  As long as communication with Rome remained intact, the language and script of Rome prevailed.  But with the breakdown of Roman power, and the ensuing effects of the Anglo-Saxon conquest, various parts of the Empire became increasingly isolated.  Thus cut off from one another, the various areas began to follow their own development in language and in script. From the original Uncial and Half-Uncial, divergent national hands developed. Notable examples are the spectacular Irish Insular (meaning isolated) Majuscule and Irish Insular Minuscule. (example opposite page)   The Book of Kells, presumably written between 790 A.D. and 830 A.D., is a late example of Insular Majuscule of Irish origin.  Irish monks eventually took their script with them, beginning in Scotland and Northumbria, to places as widely separated as England, France, Germany, and Italy itself, influencing national hands as they went.                      


      Considering the isolation caused by all the political and religious upheaval that occurred during the Dark Ages, it is not surprising that the differences in national hands began to cause problems in international communications.  For example, a German reader might not be able to decypher the writings of a Spanish scribe. Illegibility became a major threat to widespread communication.  As the 8th century came to a close, the relatively young governments of Europe were tangled in a cumbersome network of widely divergent regional and national hands.  A widespread calligraphic reformation was in order.





      Charles the Great (742 - 814 AD), better known by most as Charlemagne, succeeded his father, King Pepin , in 768 AD.  King of the Franks for forty-six years, he united almost all the Christian lands of Western Europe by conquest and ruled an empire unrivalled in its unity since the decline of Rome.


      Charlemagne, who grew up speaking the common Latin, could read and speak German, and read classical Latin, but his spelling and writing were so poor that he was by all rights functionally illiterate.  A warrior king and able administrator, Charlemagne was devoted not only to the cause of Christianity, but also to culture and the art of learning.  Some of these more exemplary elements of civilization were on the verge of extinction throughout barbarian Europe, and Charlemagne was determined to revive them.  One of the foremost tasks to be undertaken was the standardization of writing.  Communication was a critical facet of strong government as well as education and the overall equilibrium of society.  Not only would a calligraphic reformation enhance the proliferation of scholarship, administration would also become more efficient.


      Charlemagne began by surrounding himself with scholars from throughout Europe.  They came from as far as Italy, Spain, and England.  Probably the most famous was an Anglo-Saxon Benedictine monk most commonly known today as Alcuin of York.  Born in England about 735 AD and educated at the Cathedral School of York, Alcuin has been described as the rare sort of teacher who could inspire a passionate desire for knowledge.  Charlemagne placed him in charge of the school and scriptorium of his court.


      One of the tasks Charlemagne put before Alcuin was the re-copying of texts of every kind: classical works of history, philosophy, grammar and poetry, devotional works, treatises on science, mathematics and law, and the Gospels themselves. The reason for this wholesale overhaul was that texts had become corrupted with time and translation.  When copyists were deficient in their knowledge of Latin (or whatever unfamiliar language in which a text might be written), they would make mistakes, and the mistakes they made would be copied over by the next scribe, etcetera ad infinitum.  Under Charlemagne's instigation the new texts were to be derived from the most authentic sources available from the libraries of Rome and Monte Cassino.  He ordered that the copies be "correct" and "uniform", "well edited" and executed "with all possible care."  (The annotation 'ex authentico libro' is found in many Carolingian manuscripts, signifying that they were authenticated transcripts made to the highest standard that scholarship and calligraphy could attain.)                


      In order to correct the problem of widely diversified lettering styles, the scribes of Charlemagne's court did not 'invent' a new script.  They merely revised existing scripts to acheive a more practicable form.  The script which was eventually adopted and standardized,  which we call the Carolingian minuscule, is the outcome of a fusion of several distinct national styles, all of which had developed out of the classical Roman and informal cursive styles of earlier centuries.  Carolingian is distinguishable from earlier hands by increased legibility, consistent proportion, and standardization of word separation.  The practice of containing letters within four equidistant horizontal lines is credited to Alcuin himself by some historians.  (Example: the descender of 'p' would be as long as the height of the loop of 'p', and the ascender of 'b' would be as tall as the height of its loop.)  


      Charlemagne was concerned with improving education and restoring proper Latin not only within but beyond the monasteries.  A royal memo he issued read:  "It has seemed to us and to our faithful councillors that it would be of great profit and sovereign utility that the bishoprics and monasteries of which Christ has deigned to entrust us the government should not be content with a regular and devout life, but should undertake the task of teaching those who have received from God the capacity to learn...Doubtless good works are better than great knowledge, but without knowledge it is impossible to do good." Charlemagne and Alcuin wanted classical texts, religious books, and educational material copied again and again and distributed far and wide.  Charlemagne liked the neat and easily read script we call Carolingian.  In 789 AD, Charlemagne ordered that all books, religious materials, and legal records henceforth be written in this particularly serviceable script.  Within a short time it was known throughout the Empire and was being copied beyond its borders.          


      The Carolingian classical revival also renewed interest in the inscriptional lettering of Roman times.  As scribes copied the texts of the past, they also copied the scripts in a fashion first created by the much earlier scribes of the scriptorium of Luxeuil, known as 'hierarchically displayed headlining' and the  hierarchical order of scripts was developed.  The Roman Square Capitals were used for titles and explicits, Roman Rustic and the full, rounded Uncial script for chapter headings, table of contents, first lines, subtitles, and the beginning of paragraphs and sentences, and the Half-Uncial for prefaces and second lines of texts in descending order of rank.  In keeping with the idea that the older a thing is, the more important it is, Carolingian scribes calligraphed the most important part of a manuscript in the oldest script, and worked down in importance through later scripts until they reached the text itself, which they wrote in Carolingian.                  


      The use of Carolingian spread far and wide throughout central Europe.  Multitudes of books and manuscripts written in its simple, elegant letters held to the standards set down in the reformation long after Charlemagne's death. Carolingian reached its peak of popularity and perfection in the 9th century, but was steadfastly practiced in many areas through the 10th century.  The unpretentious elegance of this script represents a standard against which all other writing styles can be measured.  





      The origin of the name "Gothic" to describe the angular letter shapes that developed after Carolingian is really quite humorous.  To the Renaissance scholar, "Gothic" (of, like, or pertaining to the barbaric Goths who overran Europe in the twilight of the Roman empire) was synonymous with "uncivilized." This post-Carolingian script was called Gothic because the Humanists of the Renaissance especially disliked the hand, and could think of no more appropriate epithet. The irony of this naming is that the Goths had no script of their own.  The script that had been designed for the Goths by the Church resembled Greek, from which several letter shapes had been borrowed. The scripts of the Goths bore no similarity to the scripts later christened "Gothic."        


      Carolingian did not abruptly become Gothic.  Small variations and gradual lateral compression of letters resulted in increasingly angular letter shapes.  The transitional hands, which were not quite Carolingian but not yet Gothic, are referred to as either Late Carolingian or Early Gothic.  Early Gothic tendencies are first recognizable in late 10th and early 11th century texts. Scribes, in their recurrent search for ways to complete texts in less time and in less space, had two different courses they could follow.  They could shorten the letters in order to get more lines on a page, or they could narrow the letters to fit more letters on a line. Reducing the height of the letters would require a narrower nib (pen point).  Narrowing the letters would produce more angular letter shapes but would not require changing the nib.  As narrowing the letters entailed only a technique change, scribes chose this more economic path.


      Apart from practical considerations, which have always influenced the shape of writing styles, there were also the discernible influences of fashion and style which had changed rapidly over the same period.  These changes can be seen in many of the arts, artifacts, and architecture of the time.  The rounded, arched letters of the school of Charlemagne are echoed in the windows and doorways of his palace-chapel at Aachen, while the pointed angularity of the northern Gothic script is seen everywhere in the architecture of its time.  Furthermore, the Gothic script of the north, with its densely packed lines of stark black shapes, was quite different from its counterpart in the warmer south.  The severe, angular pointed style never took a firm hold in Italy, for example, where a softer, more rounded version called Rotunda or Italian Gothic was developed.  Wherever the scribes lived and worked they no doubt unconsciously absorbed and transmuted the influences of their time, and expressed them in the shapes of the letters they wrote.


      While the Italians, Spanish, and southern French were resisting drastic changes in design, scribes of other areas, from the end of the 12th century onward, were following a design concept that exaggerated angularity and the uniformity of word and line.  The individual letters became subordinate to the design of the word itself.  Where Carolingian was comprised of clearly defined letters that formed words, the Gothic tendency was to emphasize uniformity of the overall word design.  The resulting composition of a word thus fashioned made it appear as though it were woven, giving rise to the name Textura, meaning weaving or woven in Latin.  Done with any degree of competence, a word penned in Textura forms so graceful a unit that, if the manuscript page is turned upside down or even sideways, the word will still remain a balanced artistic design.


      As the Dark Ages ended, and the Middle Ages began, a relatively considerable increase in literacy occurred as town life became more settled and trade and commerce increased.  Up to this time, book production had been primarily aimed at two markets: the courts of kings and princes, and the Church.  Now, however, independent centers of learning were being established.  A need emerged for a wider range of books: treatises on philosophy, mathematics, music, and astronomy.  These needs were met by the appearance of flourishing lay workshops of craftsmen; scribes, bookbinders, illuminators, and parchment makers.  A prosperous merchant could now imitate the practice of kings and commission handwritten books decorated for his pleasure and instruction.  He might order books on hunting, agriculture, food and health, astrology, etiquette, household management, as well as romances, travel accounts, works of popular authors, and elaborately decorated books on courtly love.


      The book that perhaps had the largest influence on growing literacy was the Book of Hours.  From the late thirteenth to the early sixteenth century, the Book of Hours was the medieval best-seller for 250 years.  More Books of Hours were produced during this period than any other single type of book, including the Bible.  No other type of medieval book survives in such quantity.  A Book of Hours is a prayer book, like a breviary but less complex, for use by lay men and women of the Middle Ages who desired to imitate the clergy.  The clergy were required by the Church to recite daily the Divine Office, a complicated series of prayers that changed every day.  Priests, monks, and nuns fulfilled this obligation by singing from large choir books, antiphonaries, or reciting their prayers from books called breviaries.  In an era of increasing secularization, the laity coveted both the clergy's prayers and their books, and envied their intimate and direct relationship with God.  Another factor that helps explain the emergence and subsequent popularity of the Book of Hours is the cult of the Virgin.  Emblematic of this devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, were the Hours of the Virgin.  The Hours of the Virgin were extracted from the breviary and complimented with a Calendar, Suffrages, and an Office of the Dead, commonly along with the four Gospel Lessons, the Hours of the Cross and Hours of the Holy Spirit, two prayers to the Virgin, the Penitential Psalms and Litany, and frequently various other devotions to the owner's favorite patron saints. These "Hours" were canonical hours, the traditional times of the day when, according to the rule (or "canon") of the Church, the clergy were to pray (Matins and Lauds: daybreak;  Prime: 6:00 a.m.,  Terce: 9:00 a.m.; Sext: noon;  None: 3:00 p.m.;  Vespers: sunset;  Compline: evening).  The beginning of each section of text were traditionally illustrated and illuminated, according to the patron's pocketbook.  Lavish decorations were an intrinsic component of the Book of Hours, and one of the reasons behind their popularity. The vast majority of Books of Hours were written in Gothic style script.  


      The Gothic script manifested itself in assorted versions.  Primary variations include:  the basic Gothic Textura Quadrata, "quadrata" referring to the squarish appearance of the hand;  Textura Sine Pedibus, "sine pedibus" meaning without feet;  Textura Prescisus, meaning precise or exact; and a combination of the last two, Textura Prescisus vel Sine Pedibus, meaning woven exactly and especially without feet.  Variations are as wide as the geographic distances between scribes and as numerous as the paleographers who deign to give them "proper" name.


      As with all preceding scripts, Gothic became the new canvas on which scribes were to vent their artistic proclivities.  Gothic Textura Quadrata and Gothic Textura Prescisus vel sine Pedibus continued calligraphically onward and upward, through and beyond the medieval era, to die of exhaustion in the rarefied atmosphere of the Renaissance - except in Germany (especially with the advent of printing where the principal model was the Gothic script).  This pro-pedibus script survived well into the 20th century.                


      One particular evolution of the Gothic script becomes noticeable as a book hand in the mid-fifteenth century.  In business and private affairs people wrote with a cursive informal hand, which differed considerably from the formal book hands. It was speedy and small, with many letters joined together, and with a much rounder quality than the prevailing Gothic script.  Inevitably those accustomed to writing both hands would, on occasion, mix the two styles.  By the 15th century this mixed hand, called "Bastarda," "Batarde," or more generically, "Gothic Littera Bastarda," was common.  Nothing illegitimate is meant by the term.  Bastard merely meant low-born, or not aspiring to nobility.  Bastarda became so commonly accepted, and consequently formalized, that it was employed for literary works and eventually liturgical works and books of private devotion such as Books of Hours.            


      Characteristics of the Bastarda script were the curved letter forms, and a tendency to eliminate serifs and to taper individual strokes, especially the long S.  When well written the script achieved a considerable grace and majesty.  Regardless of the implication of its lack of aspiration by its name, Bastarda's popularity waxed from the mid-1400's without wane until the Renaissance.





      The severe angularity of the Gothic script never was fully adopted in Italy.   Although northern medieval Italy was exposed by both military and economic invasions to the same influences  which produced Gothic script in other regions, in the south of Italy the Beneventan script (a variety of Carolingian) had been the dominant hand for some centuries.  Somewhat isolated geographically, despite pilgrimage routes to important Christian shrines, socio-economic and cultural influences on script resulted in much less angularity.  This Italian script, called Rotunda, has the appearance of a very round and spacious Gothic.

      The Rotunda script was directly affected by the Renaissance interest in classical learning.  Conscious that Rome and Italy had once been the center of the civilized world, the 15th century Italian humanists desired to revive something of the grandeur of the ancients.                    


      While much of Europe had been decimated by the Black Death and exhausted by endless wars and dynastic quarrels throughout the fourteenth century, the merchant princes of Lombardy were working to create a new technology: international finance.  In the wealthy city states of Italy a nostalgia for the past turned into a vigorous and revitalizing current which inspired writers, artists, and craftsmen to give expression to the new mood, the new Renaissance.  The poet, Petrarch, who had done much to inspire renewed interest in the glories of the ancient world, wrote:  "The very sight of men of the present time wounds me sorely, whereas the memories, the deeds, and the illustrious names of the ancients, give me joy, splendid and so inestimable that, if the world could know, it would be amazed that I should have so much pleasure in talking with the dead and so little with the living."            


      Actual writings of the classical world were eagerly sought after.  Collectors and scholars alike went in search of classical texts throughout Italy and Europe, the richer among them sending agents far afield.  When the much desired classical texts were found, the manuscripts were frequently those which had been copied during a previous renaissance, namely that of the court of Charlemagne.  These manuscripts were written out in the fine Carolingian hand of that period, with all its clarity and beauty.  This writing greatly impressed 15th century scholars, who felt that the new learning needed a complete break from the prevailing scripts in order to express the new spirit of the age.  Whether the scholars and collectors realized that the manuscripts were not the works of their much revered classical ancestors is not quite clear.  It is as likely as not that a case of mistaken identity influenced the rebirth of Carolingian, the model script that the type on this page is based on.


      The script that evolved was called "Littera Antiqua", "Lettera Antica", "Scriptura Antiqua", and "Littera da Breve," as it was based on a much earlier script.  It is most commonly referred to in modern texts as Humanist Bookhand, because of the influence of the Humanists in instigating the revival.  The scholar-scribe Poggio Bracciolini, who is credited with developing the Humanist Bookhand script, had revised his own book hand based on not only the original 9th century Carolingian minuscule, but also on 11th or 12th century Italian versions which had developed before being overtaken by the compressions of the succeeding centuries.  Humanist Bookhand was, like its progenitor, a fine, clear, rounded hand suitable for the presentation of the scholastic atmosphere of the Renaissance.


      As it has been repeatedly noted, the natural tendency for all scripts is to change, frequently out of need of, or an innate desire in scribes for, speed.  The fine Humanist minuscule was also eventually affected in this way.  The burgeoning desire and demand for more and yet more texts involved considerable work for the professional copyist.  Many a scholar was his own scribe, and was more concerned with acquiring a copy of the text he wanted than the method of its production or writing.


      Other events were also affecting the output of written material.  The rise of nation states in Europe led to the formation of national bureaucracies.  Among the most important of these was the Papal Chancery, a bureaucratic body whose correspondence extended to almost every west European country.  Trade and travel were alike on the increase, all giving rise to more and more documentation and thus an increased demand for scribes, and for those scribes to work rapidly.


      When the letter 'o' is written quickly, its rounded form tends to become oval, and so do other characters based on the circle.  A slope develops, letters tend to join, and a cursive hand arises.  This was what happened to the Humanist hand in Italy.  The resulting cursive script was adopted by the influential chanceries of Rome and Venice in the middle of the 15th century, thus it became known as the Chancery hand, Chancery Cursive, or Cancellaresca Corsiva.  When it arrived in England a few decades after its appearance in Italy, it was known, not surprisingly, as Italic, and was also referred to as the Roman hand. Shakespeare mentions it in a passage in 'Twelfth Night', when Malvolio, referring to Olivia's supposed note to him, says, "I think we do know the sweet Roman hand."


      Although Chancery Cursive was used by the scribes of the great chanceries and offices, it was not the common hand of Europe in the 15th or 16th century.  Italic was less prevalent in Germany and central Europe, though it was taken up with enthusiasm by certain sections of the population in England.  For every-day writing, the influence of the Gothic style was still felt north of the Alps, where the Bastarda script became more cursive, eventually developing into a form which in England was known as the Secretary hand, which was nearly illegible.  Still, Chancery (Italic) was the hall-mark of the educated person. One of the noticeable features of much 16th century writing in England was that the main body of a letter or document was written in the common secretary hand, while the signature of the writer appeared in a clear Italic.  This is, somewhat ironically, the reverse of its modern counterpart, where the body of text is clearly written or typed while the writer's signature is often illegible, requiring it to be clearly spelt out underneath.


      Italic script's place on a page was secured with the advent of printing.  When the first Italian printing press was set up at Subiaco in 1464, the printers, as in Germany, turned to local scripts for their models.  The early Italian printed books therefore appeared, not in the textura of the north, but in the Roman (Humanist Bookhand and Italic) letters of the south.  Eventually the Roman form of letter was to conquer the Gothic style in all but a few countries.  When inexpensive, portable editions of the classics were desired, the Italic script proved to be a suitable model.  The success of these styles are evident on this page, whose type is derived from the Humanist hand, and in many other examples seen day to day using Italic letters to accent, indicate emphasis, or simply provide a more elegant look.


      The effect of printing on the work of professional scribes was dramatic.  The invention of printing did not mean that scribes would no longer be needed, but fewer of them would be required.  However, the printing press was practical in the production of multiple copies and where multiple copies were not required, the professional scribe remained in demand, and would do so for centuries. Letters, business records, ceremonial and legal documents, all the items for which it was uneconomic or impractical to set the printing presses going, would continue to be handwritten until the invention of the telephone and the typewriter in the 19th century.  High quality works in the deluxe tradition, customized books, ceremonial documents, etc., continued to be carried out. This somewhat limited patronage helped to keep the skills of calligraphy and illumination alive.  Hence the rise of the writing master.  These scribes refined their trade to include teaching of fine writing, and capitalized on the printing press that had so drastically cut back the demand on scribes by producing copy books.  The first of these writing manuals was La Operina, by Ludovico degli Arrighi, which was published in 1522.        


      By the middle of the 16th century, the writing master and his profession were well established.  Changes and developments in the basic structure of primary European scripts were no longer to be brought about by such things as economics, politics, or religion.  Standard script types had been carved in, not stone, but the wood and metal plates of the printing press.  Subsequent stylistic tendencies deviating from the basic Humanist and Italic models were more the results of fashion and vogue, or nostalgic reproductions than true script evolution.


      The same social and economic pressures which forced the evolution of script brought this evolution to an abrupt halt.  Scribes had turned to different materials and techniques in search of speed, regularity, and economy of material.  The printing press provided each of these.  Now, when more speed, more copies, or more words on a page were desired, instead of the scribe experimenting by changing technique or materials, the 'scribe' was changed.  Technology improved and printing speeds were increased.  To increase the number of copies, presses were developed which produced more copies at a time.  If more words were desired on a page, smaller type was used.  The function of the human scribe has been modified.  Where once he was an integral tool in shaping the form of letters, the scribe has been delegated to the rank of graphic artist.  After the rise of the printing press the practice of lettering resolved into a somewhat eccentric art form or craft, its role in mirroring the moods of historical eras lessened through technology.





1.  THE STORY OF WRITING: Donald Jackson;  Taplinger Publishing


2.  THE MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUES OF MEDIEVAL PAINTING:  Daniel V.      Thompson; Dover Publications,Inc.


3.  THE CALLIGRAPHERS' HANDBOOK:  edited by C.M. Lamb, M.A.;  Pentalic Corporation


4.  MEDIEVAL CALLIGRAPHY:  Marc Drogin;  Allanheld & Schram


5.  THE ART OF CALLIGRAPHY, Western Europe & America:  Joyce Irene Whalley, Bloomsbury Books


6.  TIME SANCTIFIED, The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life:  Roger S. Wieck; George Brazillar, Inc.


7.  WRITING & ILLUMINATING & LETTERING:  Edward Johnston; Pentalic Books


8.  THE CRAFTMAN'S HANDBOOK "Il Libro dell' Arte", Cinnino      d'Andrea Cennini:  translated by Daniel V. Thompson;  Dover Publications, Inc.


9.  Theophilus ON DIVERS ARTS:  translated by John G. Hawthorne and Cyril Stanley Smith; Dover Publications, Inc.


10.  GOTHIC ART:  Andrew Martindale;  World of Art


11.  LINDISFARNE GOSPELS:  Janet Blackhouse;  Phaidon Press Limited


12.  ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPTS, the Book Before Gutenberg:  Giulia Bologna,  Weidenfeld & Nicolson





ascender: the part of certain lower-case letters, as "d," that extends above most other lower-case letters.


burnish:  to rub with a tool that serves especially to smooth or polish.


codex:  a manuscript volume, especially of a classic work or of the Scriptures.


descender: the part of certain letters, such as "g," "p," or "y," that extends below the bottom of most lower-case letters.


diptych:  an ancient writing tablet having two leaves hinged together.


explicits:  introductory comments


glair:  a sizing, glaze, or vehicle for pigment made from raw egg whites.


majuscule: a large letter, either capital or uncial, used in writing or printing


minuscule:  lower-case letter


nib:  point of a pen


papyrus: paper made from the pith of the stalk of the papyrus reed, a tall aquatic sedge.


parchment: the skin of a sheep or goat prepared for writing or painting.


pounce:  a fine powder used to smooth and finish writing paper and to soak up ink.


rubrication:  lettering or decoration written in red


serif:  a fine line finishing off the main strokes of a letter


stylus:  a sharp, pointed instrument used for writing, marking or engraving


vellum:  a fine parchment made from the skins of calf, lamb, or kid.


versal:  a decorated letter



Copyright 1997, Dory Grace, 7216-B Bethune, Austin, TX 78752. (512)467-8566

amazing at mail.utexas.edu. Permission granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in

the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also

appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being

reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org