Medieval Writing
Histories of Scripts in the English Royal Chancery (2)

While, during the 12th century, there is a gradual change in style and variation between the writings of different scribes, the basic script remains the same for different purposes, although varying in regularity and neatness depending on the purpose for which it was employed.

writ of Henry II
Writ of Henry II, dated 1156-1166 (Charters of Takely Priory at New College). (From Salter 1929)
The above example, being a writ which was more hastily written than a formal charter, is a bit uneven and untidy, but the letter forms are essentially the same as in a more formal script. There are no fiddly split or notched tops to the ascenders of tall letters. Although it is a hastily written script, it could not be called cursive, as the letters are formed separately even if the little angular feet run into their neighbours on the page.
Domesday Book
An enlarged sample of the script of Domesday Book. (From Steffens 1929)
The great compilation of Domesday Book is usually described as being in a Caroline minuscule script, but it displays a few of the tricks of the chancery with its tall letters with angled tops, long and rather angular ascenders and descenders and the r which extends below the baseline. The script is an abbreviated and compressed, but neat and legible, version of the developing chancery hand.
The exchequer was the first bureaucratic agency to start recording their proceedings on rolls in the early 12th century. The so-called Pipe Rolls, thus named for the highly technical reason that at one time they were stored in pipes, were written very formally, the main body of the text having been written out carefully in advance, and the numbers added in later in many cases. It was a neat and calligraphic version of the chancery hand, and the exchequer records retained this greater elegance over the more pragmatic style of the working records of the chancery during the course of the centuries.
Pipe Roll
A little sample of the script of the Pipe Roll of 1130 (National Archives, I, m. II). (From Johnson and Jenkinson 1915)
The chancery itself did not begin enrolling copies of its various proclamations and correspondences until 1199. The first charter roll contained a miscellany of documents all enrolled together in chronological order. This rapidly diversified during the increasing complexity of the bureaucracy in the 13th century into sets of rolls for different grades and special types of correspondence. The scripts of the chancery rolls followed the general stylistic changes of the chancery script, but in a smaller, simpler, more cramped and informal, and more heavily abbreviated version than those used for charters and other formal correspondence. Paleographers often refer to set hands, meaning the very formal ones which follow a strict pattern of letter forms such as those of formal charters, and free hands, referring to those of less strict formality, which may show more individualities of personal style, such as are found in the rolls and less formal documents.
charter roll
charter roll Some segments of the first charter roll of 1199, showing one full entry and an enlarged segment from another (National Archives, London, Charter Rolls, No.1). (From New Palaeographical Society 1913)
During the later 12th century and early 13th century, the scripts of formal charters from the English chancery developed a more formal Gothic look. The small letters and middle parts of the tall letters became neat, squared and angular, like those of Gothic book hand, while the ascenders and descenders became longer, and developed some calligraphic flourishes. The charter of king John below shows a few twirly flourishes of the kind that did not persist in the English chancery.
charter of King John
Top left corner of a charter of King John of 1203 (Eton College LIbrary). (From New Palaeographical Society 1907)
During the course of the 13th and 14th centuries, literacy became more widespread and necessary, and written bureaucratic procedures more elaborate. The chancery found a permanent home in London separate from the peregrinations of the court, and the offices of the signet and privy seal were founded and developed their functions. With the increase in communications from and between government agencies, a form of cursive script developed which could be elegant and calligraphic enough for formal proclamations, but could also be simplified into clear but rapidly written cursive writing for less formal purposes. This is now called cursiva anglicana, which makes certain assumptions about its actual origins. That aside, it developed a very stylised form for formal documents in the chancery. It was adapted for other forms of official writing, and was even used as book hand. Generally, it was categorised by being fully cursive. Ascenders became curly and looped with marked differences in thickness between the upstrokes and downstrokes. The split ascenders of the earlier style became curly and hooked in the most formal versions. Diagnostic letters for the script include a with two closed loops; a short, tight g with enclosed lower loop; variable e which sometimes rolls over; a tendency for r to become open and descend below the baseline; a short and curly final s with a closed loop at the bottom and open at the top; the addition of multiple curly loops to w, so that the letter is always oversized.
charter of Henry III
A more or less random grab from a charter of Henry III of 1227 (Westminster Abbey Muniments, No. 6318A). (From New Palaeographical Society 1908)
In the above example, a formal charter of Henry III in which he is telling the world the important news that he wishes to be buried in Westminster Abbey because of his reverence for its founder, King Edward the Confessor, the script has some aspects in common with that of earlier royal charters, with newfangled elements of loopy ascenders, some split, and the distinctive anglicana forms of g, final s and w.
In its fully developed form, cursiva anglicana could be used for documents of great formality, as well as for more rapidly written material. At this time, Latin was being gradually overtaken by vernacular languages in official pronouncements. French, the vernacular of the English upper classes, and then English as it achieved linguistic supremacy, were written using this script.
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