Medieval Writing
Calligraphy (2)
The reform of scripts which spread Caroline minuscule over most of western Europe by the 10th century can perhaps be seen as a reform of legibility at a time when society was becoming increasingly dependent upon the written word. It was no longer enough to have a charter, you had to know what it said. In both continental Europe and Britain the new script was adapted for significant documents, although in Europe exaggerated ascenders and descenders were still employed to add a litle extra flourish to important documents.
Caroline minuscule
The beginning of a charter from the reign of William II. (From Wright 1879)
The script of the above example is a neat but not overembellished Caroline minuscule. The name ANSELM is in slightly fanciful uncials.
The papal curia, having adopted the more legible reformed script with the elaborated ascenders, proceeded to find new and interesting ways to make their documents bizarre and unique. Peculiar letter spacing within words contived to reduce legibility.
papal bull
Segment from a papal bull of Pope Eugenius III of 1147 (British Library, Cotton Cleopatra E 1, f.123). (From New Palaeographical Society 1904)
The simple word est is attenuated in the above example. This strange stretching of the st combination occurs throughout the document and other papal documents of high significance.
Highly compressed headings were another calligraphic trick to make the significance of the document immediately apparent, even to those who could perhaps not read it with facility.
heading of papal bull Part of the heading of the papal bull above. It reads:

Eugenius ep(iscopu)s seruus seruoru(m) d(e)i, dilectis filiis rogero .........

Tiny minuscule letters with tall ascenders and descenders and highly compressed headings became a feature of European diplomas, and the more important they were, the more exaggerated these odd features became.
The Vatican Library Secret Archives shows a diploma of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa from 1164 which shows these features. For an added touch of class, take a look at the gold seal.
When Caroline minuscule was used as a book hand, the way to make it important was simply to make it large, round and neat. The prestigious Bible or psalter still had to be able to be read from the lectern.
Caroline minuscule
Rounded and bold form of Caroline minuscule in the late 10th century Ramsay Psalter (British Libary, Harley 2904, f.181), by permission of the British Library.
The changes which occurred around the 12th century generated a diversity of scripts. Formal Gothic scripts which looked impressive competed with cursive scripts which were quicker and easier to write for the increasing volume of words being generated. These hybridised to produce new forms which allowed rapid writing but with added flourish. Document hands in England went through a whole series of fashion changes; from spiky and prickly to neat and rounded with large wavy ascenders and descenders, to loopy and curly, to neat and angular. Whatever the script style employed, the way to give a legal document a touch of class was to add a few fanciful embellishments to the capital letters. It probably stopped you from being bored to death if you were a chancery clerk, churning out dozens of letters purporting to be from the king.
Segment from a 15th century royal warrant (National Archives, London, C81/662/483), by permission of the National Archives.
While the script of the above example is a neat chancery hand, the scribe has got quite carried away with the capital letters in the name and honorifics of the king.
In book production the most elegant calligraphy was used in the grand books of church liturgy, utilising the more precise forms of Gothic textura. When produced in a broad and bold form, this is very legible, but when laterally compressed, as the script tended to become at times, the lines of hooked minims can make the separations of letters confusing. The classic calligrapher's exercise is to render the word minimum in Black Letter Gothic.
A calligrapher has fun with Black Letter Gothic.
Old paleography books tend to refer to any large, rounded, neat and legible book hand, whatever its script style, as a "fine liturgical hand", indicating that, whatever complex classificatory system might be employed to categorise the script, the needs of the church ritual stayed the same over many centuries. The calligraphic qualities required to fill those needs were therefore similar.
Printed books perpetuated the forms of the finest types of book calligraphy of the end of the middle ages in their typefaces derived from the humanistic and Black Letter Gothic scripts. Typefaces tended towards the "fine liturgical" style of maximum legibility, as by this time books were definitely meant to be read.
Sample of Black Letter Gothic printing on an isolated leaf , by permission of the University of Tasmania Library.
Document calligraphy survived much longer, until the invention of the steel nibbed pen allowed for the extravagant flourishes of copperplate writing and writing masters published great volumes of their diverse styles. It was all getting very late and decadent by then.
previous page

If you are looking at this page without frames, there is more information about medieval writing to be found by going to the home page (framed) or the site map (no frames).
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.