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Site: Postgraduate online research training
Course: Palaeography: An Overview
Book: Scripts
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Date: Sunday, 25 February 2018, 9:04 PM

1. History of Scripts

The evolution of script and the different styles used by scribes across the medieval period, both in the British Isles and on the continent, is frequently divided (and subdivided) into chronological sections that often, but by no means always, reflect relevant social and political changes. For instance, the impact of the Norman Conquest in English scriptoria was obvious when after a few decades Anglo-Saxon minuscule had almost vanished. Even so, one needs to be careful not to overstate the role that socio-political events played in the history of script. Instead, the evolution of styles reflects much more closely the history of writing, its nature, its purpose and its social penetration, that is to say, the number of individuals capable of writing at any given moment. Thus, it should not be surprising to find that, after the art of writing breaks away from the monastic walls to reach a wider section of the population from the twelfth century, it becomes ever more difficult to read and identify particular scripts. Writing becomes an individual tool and therefore bound to reflect the needs of each particular individual or the social group to which they belong.

The nomenclature used to describe each of these ‘phases of development’ has often been a cause of disagreement among scholars. In spite of this, some degree of standardisation has been sought here, although in the instances where this is not fully possible commentary and guidance will be provided.

For an overview of script evolution in the central Middle Ages, see this clip with Dr Erik Kwakkel (Leiden University).

2. Script Types

Even though the overall division of scripts or script phases is generally followed by palaeographers, the denomination of each phase has often lead to a degree of unresolved discussion. In this case we have opted to follow the terminology laid out by both Prof Michelle Brown, in her A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600, and Prof Jane Roberts, in her Guide to Scripts Used in English Writing up to 1500. Even though these two works vary in their focus, they are both essential to understand the nature and evolution of medieval palaeography fully both in England and in the wider European context.

2.1 The Roman Scripts


To find the origins of medieval western scripts (and indeed our modern type-faces) we need to look back at the Roman System of scripts. From about the beginning of the Christian era to the early seventh century this group of scripts pervaded the width and length of the Roman Empire. The hierarchical structure was dominated by Square Capitals, a set of letterforms particularly convenient for monumental epigraphic inscriptions (though very rarely found in manuscripts). Other more fluid forms, such as Rustic Capitals or the Old Roman Cursive, were used instead in manuscript contexts, as well as for private and administrative purposes. This group is normally described as the ‘Old Roman System of Scripts’. However, by the early fourth century, these had already evolved into a ‘New Roman System of Scripts’, among which the most influential styles are Uncial and Half-Uncial.


This is a formal, majuscule bookhand originally found in Greek and Latin manuscripts from the fourth century. It later arrived in the British Isles, where it was practised to a high standard at the twin monasteries of Jarrow and Monkwearmouth. The Codex Amiatinus [Florence, Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1] is undoubtedly one of their best known products in this script. Some of its main features include the overall roundness of its letter-forms (in contrast with earlier Square Capitals), the presence of some ascenders and descenders (despite being a majuscule script) and the absence of word division as the text is written in scriptura continua.

Click here for an example of Uncial from Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 48, England, s. vii ex. - viii in. Note the 'round' shape of M, as well as the asdender of D and the descender of G.


Whereas Uncial was a more formal, professional bookhand, by the sixth century Half-Uncial was common in ecclesiastical scriptoria. Its forms required fewer strokes and therefore it allowed scribes to write faster. Its influence was remarkable across the British Isles, and especially in Ireland where it evolved into the Irish script still in use today for the writing of Irish Gaelic. Besides the reduced number of strokes required, Half-Uncial features a round form of a (also known as ‘oc’ a), ‘lower case’ forms of b and d with straight backs and a shape of g with a flat head. As is the case with Uncial, Half-Uncial texts are often copied in scriptura continua.

Click here for an example of Half-Uncial from Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon, MS 0483, Italy, s. v-vi. Please note the 'minuscule' shapes of b and d; the flat-headed form of g which looks like a capital S (ergo, line 9); and the lack of separation between words.

2.2 The Insular Scripts

Anglo-Saxon Minuscule

By the seventh century, English scribes had adopted various forms of the so-called Insular scripts derived from Half-Uncial. In doing this, they established a clear separation in terms of shapes and looks from the styles used by their continental counterparts. In that sense, the term 'Insular' is appropriate as it places both English and Irish scribes under a close scriptorial practice. However, once the Scandinavian raids enter the equation from the late eighth century, things change significantly. After their occupation of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia in the middle of the ninth century, a period of relative stagnation in book-making followed, only to be challenged by the educational programme devised and sponsored by King Alfred of Wessex in the late part of the century. It is then that Anglo-Saxon minuscule takes off and the close ‘insular’ link is broken.

We have already discussed the 'special characters' found in the vernacular texts copied in Anglo-Saxon minuscule. However, it must be stressed that there are other letterforms which require attention given their particular shape(s). They include d (which is uncial), r (with a long descender reaching beyond the baseline); and s (which can be found low, high or round).

Anglo-Saxon minuscule underwent three phases:

Pointed (late 9th century)

Generally regarded as a continuation of earlier insular forms (particularly those seen in charters), this phase of Anglo-Saxon minuscule is strongly associated to the revival of learning set up by King Alfred in the late 800s. Its features closely resemble the angularity of the insular script.

Click here for an early form of this phase entered in a blank space at the end of London, B.L., Cotton MS Nero, D. iv, the Lindisfarne Gospels (opens a new window).

Square (10th century)

During the first part of the tenth century Anglo-Saxon scribes began to produce a new form of minuscule. The angles of the pointed forms disappear as an upright, spacious style develops, in which certain letterforms (especially a, d and e) show remarkably square shapes (hence the phase's name).

Here is an extract from Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS.3507, fo.25r. If you want to explore the rest of the page, click on the thumbnail (opens a new window).

Round (c.1000)

After the arrival of Caroline minuscule during the monastic upheavals of the 950s, Anglo-Saxon minuscule was gradually relegated to vernacular texts only. Moreover, scribes, who were often charged with copying in both languages (e.g. in bilingual manuscripts) began to produce vernacular script heavily influenced by the roundness of the continental alphabet. This is particularly visible in the shapes of a and e.

Click here for an example of round Anglo-Saxon minuscule in Princeton, Princeton University Library, MS Scheide Library M71, the Blickling Homilies (opens a new window)

Transcription Practice

Click here to do some practice transcription on Exeter Cathedral Library, MS 3501, The Exeter Book (opens a new window).  

The transcription tool will tell you if you are right or wrong by highlighting your transcriptions in green (for correct) or red (for wrong).  Once all boxes are green you have successfully transcribed all the highlighted text.  At that point close down that window and continue with the course.

2.3 Caroline Minuscule


The development of Caroline minuscule is the Frankish empire is often described as one of the pinnacles in the history of western script. Its relevance is shown, not only by the fact that this style eventually reached most of Western Europe, but also that it remains the basis for the typefaces we still use today. The support given by Charlemagne (742-814) to scholarship and education fostered the production and circulation of manuscripts across his realm. In this context, Caroline minuscule became, or rather it was implemented as, a single, unified writing style. Its main features include an overall clarity, due to the roundness of its forms, the uncial shape of a and the absence of feet in minims such as m and n.

Click here for an example of Continental Caroline minuscule from a Southern French scriptorium (Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon, MS 481, s. x1). Please note the simplicity of its minims (lack of feet in letterforms such as m and n) as well as the absence of hooks in e. (Opens in a new window)


Caroline minuscule was introduced into the Anglo-Saxon scriptorium during the monastic reforms of the 950s. The arrival of the continental script restricted the use of the earlier Anglo-Saxon minuscule (during both its square and round phases) to the vernacular texts, that is to say, texts in Old English language. This implies that English scribes would have to master the two scripts, especially when they were required to write bilingual manuscripts or documents. Bilingual customaries (such as the Rule of St Benedict or the Rule of Chrodegang) and, more frequently, charters in which the boundary clauses are in Old English whereas the main body and witness-list are in Latin, provide us with valuable examples where the same scribe shifts from one script to the other.

Here is a charter from 1044 [Exeter D&C, MS 2526] in which the Anglo-Saxon scribe uses English Caroline (or Anglo-Caroline) minuscule for the core of the document in Latin (the terms of the transaction), Anglo-Saxon minuscule for the boundary clauses, and Caroline again for the witness list. Note the presence of feet in the English Caroline form of m and n, unlike those in the continental example above. Also, note the main differences between the forms of a, e, g and r in both scripts.

Click on the thumbnail to view the full page (opens a new window).

Here is a clip of Prof Julia Crick (KCL) discussing the features of the Anglo-Caroline script in Exeter, D&C MS 2526.


Transcription Practice

Click here to transcribe a few lines from London, Senate House, MS 1019 (opens a new window).

2.4 Protogothic Script

By the end of the eleventh century the roundness of the Caroline minuscule began to show an increasing degree of angularity. In the advent of the Gothic scripts, the twelfth century saw the development of a transitional style which bridged the gap between the earlier round and spacious forms of the Caroline style and the angular and compressed ones of the forthcoming Gothic scripts. By this time, Protogothic forms become oval whereas the first signs of lateral compression are perceived. Besides, the presence of feet in minims, the main characteristic of English Caroline minuscule, is extended to virtually every stroke possible in protogothic texts. The latter helps us understand the extent to which this style developed under the influence of English Caroline minuscule.

Here is Dr Erik Kwakkel (Leiden University) discussing some of the developments that Caroline minuscule underwent during the Protogothic period.

As with preceding styles, Protogothic minuscule was used both in books (bookhand) and documents (documentary hand). However, during the second half of the twelfth century, the latter appears to show a number of distinctive features including linked minims and occasional looped ascenders and descenders (see example below). These come to reflect, amongst other things, the increase in administrative production (especially in the royal chancery) and, therefore, the need for quicker forms.



Here is an example of a Protogothic bookhand found in an English bible from the early 13th century (London, Senate House Library, MS 785).

Click on the thumbnail to view the full page (opens a new window).


This confirmation to Battle Abbey (Sussex) from the mid twelfth century shows a documentary style of Protogothic minuscule (London, Senate House Library, I, 28, 1).

Click on the thumbnail to view the full page (opens a new window).

Transcription practice

Click here to do some transcription from London, Senate House Library, MS 639 (opens in a new window).

2.5 The Gothic Scripts - Textualis

The progressive move away from the round Caroline forms and towards angularity anticipated in the Protogothic period arrived by the late 12th century to a set of scripts jointly known as Gothic. This momentous period in the history of western script saw both the establishment of a (rather strict) hierarchy of styles according to the nature and purpose of the book to be copied and the rediscovery of cursive styles for documents (and books later in the period).

Bookhand (Textualis)

The Gothic period saw a neat separation between bookhands and documentary hands unlike that seen in previous phases. With regards to the former, the degree of angularity featured in Protogothic hands was highlighted by heavily compressing letterforms, thus emphasising height over width and turning the characteristic Protogothic oval bowls into lozenge-like shapes. Similarly, other characteristics already present in the previous phase became more apparent. The almost uniform addition of feet and serifs to minims, including those of f and s; the fusion (or biting) of facing bowls (such as d and b when followed by e or o), the use of uncial d, and the return of the tironian nota instead of the ampersand for et are found throughout the Gothic period.

In this clip Dr Erik Kwakkel (Leiden University) discusses biting and fusion from the late Protogothic period.

The classification of Gothic bookhands (textualis) is not an easy task and it frequently varies from commentator to commentator. Even so, it is often agreed that there were four grades of Gothic textualis which reflect both the treatment given to the minims as well as the quality of the manuscript in question.

Prescissa - Found in de-luxe items, where the feet of minims end up in a horizontal break.

Click here for an example of this grade in 'The Bromholm Psalter', Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1523 (s. xiv in., East Anglia). (Opens a new window)

Quadrata - Found in MSS of very high quality, here minims terminate in distinctive diamond-line feet.

Semi-quadrata - A medium-quality grade, minims alternate sporadically between the feet seen in the quadrata style and a rounded terminal (as those in rotunda).

Click here for an example of this grade in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 720, part II (s. xiii 3/4, England). (Opens a new window)

Rotunda - The lowest grade of the four, its distinctive minims are simply rounded off.


Transcription practice

Click here to transcribe a few lines from London, Senate House Library, MS 597 (opens a new window).

2.6 The Gothic Scripts - Cursive

Cursive Documentary


During the twelfth century the form of Protogothic miniscule used in documents had began to show certain features which set a neat distinction between that and the script used to copy books (bookhand). Late in the century it developed into a fully cursive script which ignored the angularity and compression of Gothic textualis and, instead, favoured linked letters, loops and other decorative additions. This ‘business hand’, which seems to have developed in the royal chancery,  had a local English style conveniently known as ‘Anglicana’ which featured a double-compartment a, an 8-shaped g, and a round form of s that looks very much like a small numeral 6.

The image below is an English charter from c. 1273 relating to Battle Abbey (East Sussex). It offers a neat example of Cursive Anglicana with plenty of loops on the ascenders. Please note the use of both a double-compartment a (line 1) and a single-compartment one (beginning of line 4); round cursive s alongside long s (e.g., p[re]sentes, line 1); 8-shaped g (e.g., ego, line 1).

Please click on the thumbnail to view the full page (opens a new window).


In the second half of the fourteenth century a new form of cursive arrived in England from the French chancery. Even though this new style may have originated in Italy, the secret of its success over the already established Anglicana was the fact that it was even quicker to write. This reflected on the increased angularity of its forms, as seen for instance in the pointed shape of a. Other useful forms that may allow us to set Secretary apart from Anglicana include the use of 'clubbed' ascenders, cursive d with an angular bow, g with an open descender curling to the left, r either showing a 2-like shape or sitting on the baseline and x made with a single stroke.

Here is a page from London, Senate House Library, MS 278 (Robert of Gloucester, Chronicle), containing 15 lines in Latin on the Prophecies of Merlin in a Secretary hand. Note in particular the characteristic shapes of a, d, g, and the 2-shaped r.

Please click on the thumbnail to view the full page (opens a new window).

Transcription practice

Click here to try your hand at transcribing a brief extract from Exeter, Dean & Chapter, MS 643 (opens in a new window).

3. Select Bibliography

Bischoff, B., Latin Paleography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages,trans., Daibhi Ó Croinin and David Ganz (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990)

Boyle, L. E., Medieval Latin Palaeography: A Bibliographical Introduction (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984)

Brown, M. P., A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 (London, British Library, 1990)

Brown, M. P., Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts (London, British Library, 1989)

Brown, M. P., The British Library Guide to Writing and Scripts (London & Toronto: British Library & Toronto University Press, 1998)

Cappelli, A., Lexicon abbreviaturarum: Dizionario di abbreviature latine ed italiane. 6th ed. (Milan: Ulrico Hoepli, 1979)

Clemens, R. and Graham, T., Introduction to Manuscript Studies (London: Cornell University Press, 2007)

Derolez, A., The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books from the Twelfth to the Early Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Kerby-Fulton, K., Hilmo, M., and Olson, L., Opening up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary & Visual Approaches (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2012)

Millares C., Asencio, A.,  Ruiz, J. M., Tratado de Paleografía Española (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1983)

Parkes, M. B., Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1992)

Pelzer, A., Abreviations latines medievales : supplement au Dizionario di abbreviature latine ed italiane de Adriano Cappelli (Bruxelles: Editions Nauwelaerts, 1982)

Roberts, J., Guide to Scripts Used in English Writing up to 1500 (London and Toronto: British Library and Toronto University Press, 2005)

Schneider, K., Paläographie und Handschriftenkunde für Germanisten. Eine Einführung (Tübingen, 1999)

Scott, K. L., Later Gothic manuscripts, 1390-1490, 2 vols. (London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 1996)

Stiennon, J., Paleographie du Moyen Age. 2nd ed. (Paris: A. Colin, 1991)

Thompson, E. M. An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography. Oxford: Clarendon, 1912.

4. Further Information

There are plenty of resources available online to supplement your study of medieval scripts (although not all of them may be trustworthy!). Here are some suggestions if you would like to explore the medieval history of western scripts further:

- For a schematic approach to the evolution of scripts, visit Medieval Palaeography and go to ‘Developments’ in the left frame. 

- You can find an alternative index of scripts in Medieval Writing (see left frame).

- Bernard Muir's pioneering site 'Ductus' (now an acclaimed DVD) remains a valuable resource with a script list and plenty of useful pics.