Medieval Writing
Samples from a Mortuary Roll
The idea that scripts are highly uniform at any particular point in time and place can be counteracted by examining a document containing a number of scripts which have been added over a relatively short period of time. Mortuary rolls were sent out by monastic foundations at the death of significant members of the community. They were sent progressively around all houses of the same order, and at each prayers were added for the soul of the deceased. A mortuary roll in the British Library (Egerton MS 2849) was produced around 1230 at the death of Lucy, founding prioress of the priory of St Cross and St Mary at Hedingham, Essex. It consists of a letter from her successor, one Agnes, and tituli or prayers from 122 other religious houses. These were added as the roll made its progress around the country over a short number of years. Samples of handwriting from 10 of the appended prayers are shown here. They are taken from consecutive entries. (From New Palaeographical Society 1903)
The scribe for Boxgrave Priory in Sussex employed an elaborate calligraphic document hand with extended wiggly ascenders and a highly elaborated initial letter.
The next entry, from Southwyke Priory in Hampshire employs a charter hand of a different character, with loopy ascenders and curly capitals.
The third entry, from Hyde Abbey, is of similar character to the previous.
The Abbey of St Mary at Winchester has employed something close to a Gothic textura book hand for their entry.

The scribe for Old Minster at Winchester has used a neat Gothic charter hand with calligraphic capitals, tall wiggly abbreviation marks as in the second word beatorum, wedged ascenders and an extravagant backsloping d.

Romsey Abbey in Hampshire has used what can only be described as a messy Gothic script.
With Wilton Abbey in Wiltshire we return to a calligraphic charter hand with rather curly elaborations and the backsloping d.
The entry from Shaftsbury Abbey resembles a Gothic book hand with a few extra flourishes.
The exceptionally neat charter hand from Sherborne Abbey in Dorset is positively Italian in character.
The scribe from Montacute in Somerset has gone all the way in producing an elaborate calligraphic minuscule similar to those of papal documents of high significance, including the large separation between s and t in apostolorum in the top line.
Most of the entries shown, barring perhaps one, have employed what one might call posh writing, suitable for a highly ceremonial document. The differences are in how they have interpreted them; some more like book hand, some like chancery hands, some with an elegant ecclesiastical character. And what is the story with Romsey Abbey? Did some ancient abbess with quavering hands feel it was more important to pen the lines herself than to entrust them to a mere scribe? Makes you want to have a look at the whole document.
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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.