Medieval Writing
The History of Scripts
Handwriting is an individualistic craft and each scribe writes a little differently. However, over time the forms of letters and the style of writing have changed. Different styles have also developed for particular purposes, so that even in the same time and place, the handwriting of a majestic book of church liturgy, designed for reading aloud in solemn performance, may be different to that of a more modest book, and to that of a royal charter, and to that of a scribe in a court of law, and to that of a tired and irritable university student.
Scribe 1 Scribe 2
Two examples from one document showing the variations in hands between two scribes writing in essentially the same script, Caroline minuscule. The book is an 11th century manuscript, the Harley Psalter (British Library, Harley 603), by permission of the British Library.
Despite the variations, there are recognisable patterns of change which have occurred over time as writing has evolved. Styles of writing can be categorised into named scripts which can be identified as to their time and place of origin. Because of the natural variation and fluid relationships between these products of individual human creativity, the classification and nomenclature of scripts is somewhat variable. There are trends, developments of very different general categories of script, periods of diversification and periods of consolidation of styles. Change has sometimes occurred rapidly and sometimes slowly.

(See Bischoff 1990, also Brown 1990, also Jackson 1981, also Thompson 1912.)

The history of script changes reflects aspects of the history of the literate world. They are of interest not only to those who have a fascination for the changing shapes of letters, but to those with a more general interest in the history of social and cultural processes.
The scripts used by the Romans were used throughout the Empire and formed the basis for all later developments. After the fall of the Empire, surviving and reviving centres of literacy developed a diversity of scripts based on the Roman model. The script known as Caroline minuscule was developed in the revival of literacy and Classical culture which occurred under the Emperor Charlemagne. This became a standard across much of literate Europe by the 10th century. A new wave of diversification began in northern France and the Low Countries in the 11th century, resulting in the development of the large and diverse family of scripts known as Gothic. In the Renaissance period in Italy, a return to aspects of Classical culture included the revival of what were perceived as Classical scripts. This era represented the end of manuscript book production to any significant degree, although a range of stylised hands for document production remained in use.
The enperor Augustus
Many of the script examples illustrated in the History of Scripts section are examined in much greater detail in the paleography section of this website, Start with the Index of Scripts, and follow each example through its set of paleography exercises. Don't worry, they don't bite! A little pixie, or is that pixel, holds your hand and leads you through the reading of each sample of script.

Roman scripts

Post-Roman scripts

Caroline minuscule

Gothic variations

Classical revival

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 31/8/2005.