Medieval Writing
The procedure of writing itself could add decorative effect to a manuscript. Elegant and laboriously produced penwork could add value to a document; not just monetary value, but social value. Just as a fine display work of church liturgy might be seen as having greater social value than a practical but useful book of sermons for a parish priest, so a royal, imperial or papal charter might be seen as having greater social value than a book of accounts or a manumission of serfs. Within the various traditions of their times, scripts can be graded according to this social valuation.
Calligraphers and paleographers who study the way in which the scripts were created in order to answer historical questions establish what they call the ductus. This represents the technical aspect of production of the script, involving understanding how the pen was held and the order and direction of the strokes used to make each letter. (See Drogin 1980)
An example of the ductus of a capital letter N in early Gothic script. The red arrows represent the direction of the strokes as the letter is built up.
Strange as it may seem, no matter how carefully you try to copy the shapes of letters, if you don't have the ductus right, they don't look the same. This indicates that a scribe in training was learning not only the visual skills of letter recognition and reproduction, but very specific sequences of motor skills.
In the earlier part of the medieval period, the use of elaborate calligraphy in the production of legal documents did not enhance their legibility. Merovingian chancery script, Ravenna chancery script and papal curialis all had in common a compressed and elongated form with extravagant ascenders and descenders. It looked all very impressive, but it is actually very difficult to read.
Merovingian chancery script
This is a little grab of Merovingian chancery script from a diploma of Charlemagne from AD 781 (State Archives, Marburg). (From Steffens 1929)
Even the large letters of the heading above are squashed while the long curving ascenders get entangled in the words of the line above. It begins: Carolus gratia d(e)i rex Francoru(m) et Langobardoru(m) ... which I owe to Dr Steffens as I would not have worked it out if I stared at it for a fortnight.
We tend to think of legibility as being paramount in legal documents. Before one signs one's life away on a mortgage, one reads the fine print. But our culture is based on the primacy of the written word and its literal interpretation. You didn't understand clause 15 before you signed? The debt collector will be around tomorrow. These documents were tokens of good faith in which an understanding of a legal arrangement is ratified by the production of a ceremonial and significant object. The king did not sneak in trick clauses. The document was delivered open for anyone to see and had its official seal. More than likely the messenger would read it aloud to you. The calligraphic writing was a further insignia of its authenticity. Most of the content was ceremonial persiflage anyway, with the significant legal substance as a short sentence buried in the middle of the main paragraph.
The finest display works of the early church also used elegant calligraphy to enhance their appearance, but these were works which were used for reading aloud in the performance of ritual. The writing had to be legible. The production of an entire work in uncial script would have been a laborious procedure, but the result was not a token. It was a book which could sit on a lectern in a dimly lit church and still be read by the priest.
Text from a 6th century Italian gospel (British Library, Harley 1775), by permission of the British Library.
While the letters in the above example are large, well spaced and clear, note that there is no spacing between the words. This suggests that there is an assumption that the priest knows much of this by heart, otherwise the reading aloud process would be painful and laborious.
The various scripts derived from New Roman cursive, designated the National hands, tended to favour speed of writing over display qualities. However, the insular family of scripts which were developed in Ireland and northern England were also used as a calligraphic display scripts. These also had their origin in liturgical use and the most formal of them, insular half uncial and insular set minuscule, were designed for legibility. The adaptation of these scripts for document hands in Britain meant that English charters and other documents had a somewhat different appearance to diplomas from the continent of Europe, although their function was similar.
insular half uncial 8th century gospel (British Library, Royal 1 B VII, f.55), by permission of the British Library.
In this gospel book, the letters are rounded, bold and clear. However there is a great deal of abbreviation and the unique display script for the heading, which includes the bird's head as a capital I, suggests again that this was a prompt for a well known passage.

It begins: INITIUM EVangeliiihuxpi filiidi

or Initium evangelii iesu christi filii dei

insular minuscule
Part of a charter of 812, of Coenwulf, king of Mercia. (From Wright 1879)
The insular minuscule script in the example above is the same as would have been used in a work of religious writing, but then it was most likely produced by a monastic scribe.



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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. this page last modified 1/8/2011.