2. Script Types

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.