The Development of Anglo-Saxon and Caroline minuscule

1. The Development of Anglo-Saxon Minuscule

1.1 The Square Phase

Its origins seem to correspond with the learning reform initiated by King Alfred of Wessex (871-899) in the second half of his reign. The importing of foreigners to revitalise the pitiful state of Anglo-Saxon knowledge when he reached the throne seems to have been followed by the development (perhaps even planned) of a new style of handwriting. The so-called English Square minuscule embodied the departure from a style (pointed) that lacked clarity and came to reflect the decline in professional skills and standards denounced (and perhaps exaggerated) by Alfred himself in his Prologue to the translation of Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care. A copy of this suvives in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Hatton 20.

The development of Square minuscule appears to be highly indebted to previous styles, namely those developed in the British Isles in the early medieval period. It seems that the Anglo-Saxon scribes who pioneered the new upright, elegant script had previous Uncial and Half-Uncial forms in mind.

This phase of the Anglo-Saxon minuscule had its heyday in the first half of the tenth century during (and perhaps under the support of) the reigns of Alfred’s descendants. The theory of royal sponsorship seems to find evidence in the extant documents produced, arguably, by the royal chancery and which, it has been claimed, may have set the standards for scriptoria around the realm. Whatever the case, Square minuscule seems to have been fully used by the 920s. By the following decade the script had reached a level of standardisation that saw it in use in literary manuscripts, royal diplomas and even personal documents.

As for its geographical range, evidence suggests that Square minuscule was being used by the 930s in a number of centres in southern England and perhaps in areas of Mercia. It was doubtless the preferred script in greater Wessex during most of the tenth century. However, there is barely any evidence of its use north of the Humber. The lack of book production in areas mostly under Scandinavian rule seems to have been reversed only after the so-called Benedictine reform, in the second half of the century. However, by this time, Caroline minuscule was already preferred for Latin texts.

Among the main features of Square Anglo-Saxon minuscule we must highlight:

- Its upright, formal and regular aspect.

- The shape of a. This is often pointed out as the key letterform of this style. It is normally made in the shape of a u with a horizontal top.

- As with a, other letterforms with a squarish appearance include n, o and u.

- The form of d remains round, even though its ascender is very short and almost horizontal.

- The formality of this style is emphasised by the limited number of ligatures used (they include mainly e+t and s+t).

Click on the thumbnail below to explore a magnificent example of Anglo-Saxon Square minuscule in Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS. 3507, fo. 67r.


Transcription Practice

Click here to do some practice transcription on Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS. 3507, fo. 25r (opens a new window).