Medieval Writing
Nomina Sacra
The use of certain standard abbreviations for the names of the deity or for certain highly sacred concepts dates from the earliest Christian manuscripts. The fact that this was not done for speed, efficiency or the saving of space is emphasised by the fact that not only do these abbreviations appear in the most formal of manuscripts, they are part of elaborate decorative headings. The nomina sacra are really a form of sacred visual code.
Holy Trinity
Depictions of the deity in word or visual form seemed to pose difficulties. The above is a representation of the Holy Trinity from a 15th century alabaster tomb in the parish church of Methley, Yorkshire.
The nomina sacra abbreviations have something in common with other coded visual representations of the deity, such as the chi-rho monogram, the Chrismon symbol used on Frankish and German diplomas, the agnus dei, the monogram of the Holy Trinity found in medieval art or the most fundamental symbol of Christianity, the crucifix. They are the symbolic representation of a deity that is difficult to represent in a literal form as the Christian God of the middle ages was a very difficult concept to get your head around.
Holy Trinity agnus dei
Images in the tracery lights of a 15th century stained glass window in Thornhill parish church, Yorkshire.
At the very top of the tracery lights is the Holy Trinity monogram in which God, Deus in the middle is linked to circles representing the Father, Son and Holy Ghost with the word est (is), while the three components are linked by banners reading non est (is not). In the next tracery light is the agnus dei symbol for Christ comprising a haloed lamb with crucifix and flag.
Chrismon Chrismon
On the left is a Chrismon symbol, from a diploma of Charlemagne of AD 781 (Marburg, K. Preussisches Staatsarchiv) while above is the equivalent from a diploma of Emperor Konrad III from 1139 (St Gall, Stiftsarchiv). (From Steffens 1929)
The Chrismon symbol may have been derived from the chi-rho symbol for Christ, but in Germanic diplomas it developed calligraphic elaborations which altered its form, but not its meaning.
crosses Crucifix symbols in a late 11th century charter in Eton College Library. (From New Palaeographical Society 1904)
The symbols of the crucifix which are found on early English charters are simpler in form, but their presence beside the names of the witnesses indicate that they have taken an oath before Christ to the veracity of the document.
chi-rho The fact that the chi-rho or XPI symbol for Christ is not a mere abbreviation is attested by the very elaborate, nearly full page decorative treatment that it received in some early gospel books. This is a potent symbol.

Chi-rho page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, Matthew i. 18, f.29 (British Library, Cotton Nero D IV). (From E.G. Millar 1923 The Lindisfarne Gospels London: British Museum)

Click on image for a larger version.

When it comes to the symbols which are actually incorporated as part of the written text, highly significant passages of sacred text may be heavily abbreviated. The following is one of my favourite passages from the Vulgate Bible, the beginning of the gospel of St John. They revered it in the middle ages too, as it often comes in for special treatment in the decoration of the text. When you read it aloud in Latin it forms an interlinking chain of repeating words.
In the beginning ... A highly abbreviated version of the passage from the gospels of Maelbrigte (British Library, Harley 1802, f.128), a 12th century Irish manuscript. By permission of the British Library.
In principio erat uerbum et uerbum erat apud deum et deus erat uerbum. Hoc erat in principio apud deum. Omnia per ipsum facta sunt et sine ipso factum est nihil. Quod factum est in eo uita est et uita erat (lux hominum et lux in tenebris lucet et tenebre eam non comprehenderunt).
The full passage as written in the manuscript is a sacred visual and verbal puzzle. There are many abbreviations apart from the the nomina sacra term dm for deum, but the whole thing indicates that abbreviation was not regarded as diminishing a text, even one with holy content.
St Matthew Decorative heading in an 11th century gospel book (Cambridge, Trinity College Library, MS.B.10.4). (From New Palaeographical Society 1903)
In this example the nomina sacra abbreviation IHU for Iesu (Jesus) appears in a very formal and decorative heading, part of a large and elaborate introduction page to the gospel of St Matthew.
These abbreviations alter their endings according to their grammatical position in a sentence, as the full words would do if written out. This means there are variants on each term. While there are various lists of abbreviations around, they do tend to dissolve into rows of little black squiggles if you look at them for too long, even though they are very handy for reference. Here I intend to collect together images from real examples so that they can be seen in a range of different scripts and with different forms of abbreviation marks. The collection will gradually grow, hopefully into a little visual reference library. Click on each term for a set of examples.

The following are the most important terms:

  • Deus
  • dominus
  • Iesu
  • Christus
  • sanctus
  • spiritus
What is Paleography?

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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 30/3/2005.