Medieval Writing
Caroline Minuscule
The development of Caroline Minuscule, or Carolingian minuscule, was a reform which increased the uniformity, clarity and legibility of handwriting. It was evidently developed in the late 8th century scriptorium of Charlemagne, or in those of the monasteries under his patronage, in the course of his conscious efforts to revive the literate culture of Classical Rome.
This map shows the change and development of scripts in the 9th centuriy.
Caroline minuscule was not suddenly invented one rainy afternoon. Changes had been occurring over time to the Merovingian and Germanic minuscules, rendering them neater, rounder and simpler. The new script spread to various European monastic scriptoria, but in its early phase these various centres retained certain individualities of style from their earlier minuscule book hands.
late Merovingian script
Sample of script transitional between Merovingian and Carolingian types, from an Epistle of Gregory the Great (Cologne Cathedral Library, MS XCI) in an 8th century volume. (From New Palaeographical Society 1905)
Accompanying the reform of the minuscule scripts was a return to standard Classical forms of the majuscule scripts such as uncial, and also half uncial, for display headings. Carolingian books employed a hierarchy of scripts to differentiate heading of different weight and to formalise page layout.
The Carolingian chancery did not immediately adopt this new script for charters or diplomas, retaining certain calligraphic flourishes from Merovingian chancery script. It is a little intrguing that clarity and legibility seems to have been regarded as less important for legal documents than for liturgy.
In the early 9th century, the various centres using this script adopted a more standardised form, abandoning the flourishes and ligatures of their earlier styles. The monastery of Tours may have been responsible for spreading this more regular style via the many manuscripts produced there and sent to other monasteries.
Caroline minuscule
Sample of early 9th century Caroline minuscule from a Lives of the Fathers (Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, MS 8216-18). (From New Palaeographical Society 1904)
Ada Gospels The Ada Gospels of the late 8th century (Treves, Stadtbibliothek, Bibelhandschriften 22 (Codex aureus), p.17). (From Steffens 1929)
The script was adopted in northern Italy in the early part of the 9th century, building on a base of existing script reform. Insular minuscule disappeared from the German monasteries of Anglo-Saxon foundation around the mid 9th century and was replaced by Caroline minuscule. A similar replacement took place in Brittany which had used its own characteristic form of insular minuscule. The new style spread as far north as Denmark.
Caroline minuscule was not adopted in England until the 10th century when it was associated with the reform of Benedictine monasticism. English Caroline minuscule retained a certain regional distinctiveness of style, including the wedge shaped ascenders from the earlier insular minuscule script. (See Bishop1971)
St Augustine's, Canterbury
Ruins of St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury
English Caroline minuscule Sample of English Caroline minuscule in the 10th century New Minster Charter (British Library, Cotton Vespasian A VIII), by permission of the British Library.
This map shows the spread of Caroline minuscule in the 10th century.
There was some variation between large, rounded forms of the script and smaller, more compact versions.
bold 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.
compact Caroline minuscule
Small and compact version of Caroline minuscule in a computistical work concerning calculation of the date of Easter, from the later 11th century (British Library, Cotton Caligula A XV, f.125v), by permission of the British Library.
In England the script was used for charters as well as for a book hand when the language used was Latin. However, insular minuscule was retained for English documents and books. Bilingual documents or books used both scripts, so that scribes were competent in both.
Segment of a charter of the time of William II, in a clear Caroline minuscule hand. (From Wright 1879)
Caroline minuscule gradually replaced Visigothic script in Spain during the 11th century. Factors affecting its demise were the expansion of the Cluniacs into the country and the banning of the native script for ecclesiastical books in 1090 after liturgical reforms. For other works, the letter forms of Caroline minuscule gradually infiltrated the Visigothic. (See Bischoff 1990)
The Merovingian chancery script and its Carolingian successor were retained in Germany until around the mid 9th century and in France until the 10th century. The royal document hand of Germany became closer to the Caroline minuscule book hand, with some calligraphic flourishes. Private charters were generally produced in the Caroline minuscule book hand, often with long ascenders and descenders.
This map shows developments in the 11th century.
Caroline minuscule eventually became a relatively standardised script over an area ranging from Spain to Scandinavia, England to northern Italy. It is an easy script for us to read as the forms of letters are very similar to those employed today in book typefaces. The adoption of a more standardised form of writing coincided with an increase in the production of written works and their movements over greater expanses of territory. It signalled the return of a more literate mode of conduct of society. The association with liturgical reform in some areas is also interesting. There appears to be some sort of mental association between what you write and how you write it, between orthodoxy of practice and orthodoxy of handwriting.

Columbia University has some examples of Caroline minuscule pages from northeast France in the second half of the 9th century. One (Plimpton MS 57 frag. verso) is a sermon of Faustus of Rietz, another (Plimpton MS 56 frag.,verso) is from Smaragdus, Collectiones epistolarum et evangeliorum.

Gothic variations

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