Medieval Writing
The History of a

The letter a is one of the more interesting ones, with a range of variations in form, some of which are regarded as diagnostic in the identification of particular scripts. We are familiar today with the closed a with a short curling loop at the top, most commonly used in printed typefaces, and such as is found right here in what you are reading. For most of us, our cursive writing will contain a simplified a with no loop at the top. Both these forms, and multiple other variants, are found in medieval writing.

While these little histories are essentially about the minuscule letters, the development of capitals being another story, we will start with the early majuscule alphabets in each case, just to see where some things come from.

square capital A In the Old Roman square capitals, A has the very familiar closed triangular form. Most square capital forms are entirely familar to us from our own printed heading typefaces.
rustic capital A In the rustic capital script, the letter A not only looks less angular and has gained feet, it has lost its crossbar.
uncial A The uncial A, while a majuscule letter, shows a form similar to that of many later minuscule scripts, with the curved diagonal line forming an upper loop and a closed loop attached.
New Roman cursive a In New Roman cursive, which formed the basis for the development of many scripts, minuscule a was an open letter. To our eyes this example could be u or r or i, or practically anything.
In the pre-Carolingian minuscule scripts which are often inaccurately dubbed the National Hands, a was a variable letter, and one which was often used to differentiate script types as certain forms tended to be diagnostic. In cases of scripts which have hybridised and interacted, this may be a modern artifact of classification, but certain scripts had their very characteristic forms.
old Italian a This example from what is described as an old Italian book hand of the 8th century preserves the open a. How this script fits into the rigid National Hand classification is unclear, but it is probably from northern Italy. Some might call it Lombardic, others would argue that it is not.
Merovingiana The open a which looks like cc is considered reasonably typical of Merovingian minuscule or Germanic book hand. This is from an 8th century example that tends toward the newfangled Carolingian style, but maintains this diagnostic letter form.
Corbie ab a An open a of peculiar form is one of the diagnostic letters of that specialised Merovingian script, Corbie ab.
Luxeuil a The other named special Merovingian book hand, Luxeuil minuscule, also has an open a, this time in the form of a very angular cc.
Merovingian chancery a It appears in highly laterally compressed form in Merovingian chancery script, the formal document hand of the royal Merovingian and Carolingian chancery.
Visigothic a The Visigothic script from Spain displays a slightly open a, although this example is closer to a familiar form than the others shown here.
half uncial a In fact, it is very close in form to this example of the open, but only just, a from an early half uncial example.
insular half uncial a In contrast, the script from England and Ireland known as insular half uncial or, somewhat inaccurately, insular majuscule, has a closed a which extends almost into a sideways figure of eight. Just to add to the confusion, this form of a has also been found in scripts described as Merovingian.
Beneventan a This exaggerated form is also found in Beneventan minuscule from southern Italy, and is one of the diagnostic letters for this script.
old curialis a The old curialis of the papal chancery completed the exaggeration with a double closed loop.
insular minuscule a And just to be different again, insular minuscule produced a simple closed form without any extraneous loops, quite different to that of insular half uncial, although the latter form can be found in scripts of intermediate type.
dipthong ae The letter a could be changed in form in a ligature, most notably in the æ dipthong found in Old English.
There seems to be no particularly strong geographical pattern to the variations on the letter a in this period. Perhaps this should be no surprise, as those who could write were an international literate elite who came together in various places as a result of their religious calling, rather than their place of birth. Styles developed in places where writing was carried out.
Caroline minuscule a The reformed script known as Caroline minuscule, developed in the 9th century and spreading rapidly through western Europe, was designed to produce uniformity and mutual legibility. The closed a became the standard form, although the occasional open a sneaks into some early works in this script style. Most commonly, it had the extended curling loop over the top, although the simple form without a loop was also found, particularly in small neat scripts, rather than the large impressive ones which were done with extra flourish. This seems to hark back to the uncial A more than to the New Roman cursive.
Caroline minuscule a
new curialis a While Caroline minuscule rapidly became a standard book hand in most areas, the influence on document hands was a little more gradual in places. This example from the papal curialis of the 11th century maintains an open a, even while other letters had been modernised.
diplomatic minuscule a By the 12th century, the papal chancery had adopted the neat closed a. At the same time, both the papal and Imperial German chanceries were adopting very fiddly scripts based on Caroline minuscule but with highly elaborated and exaggerated ascenders. In this so called diplomatic minuscule, small letters like a retained their simple and recognisable form.
Gothic book hands were developed from Caroline minuscule, and the basic general form of a with a loop at the top was common to all variations, whether the script was rounded or angular, broad or compressed, rapidly or intricately finished. Sometimes the loop on top was absent, and sometimes it was closed over.
protoothic a This protogothic a from a 12th century French book hand is hardly distinguishable from the Caroline minuscule form.
rotunda a A 14th century copy of Dante in the Italian language provided this Gothic rotunda version of the letter a.
Gothic a This shows a Gothic textura a of medium grade from a 13th century song manuscript.
Gothic prescissa a The most formal grade of Gothic, known as prescissa, is very carefully formed with no feet, but a has the same basic letter form. The upper loop is closed by a fine hairline.
Gothic a A relatively informally written late 15th or early 16th century German psalter in a slightly untidy Gothic textura script has provided that letter a without an upper loop.
Gothic a This letter a with a closed upper loop comes from a 15th century Dutch language book of hours in a formal Gothic textura.
While formal book hands seemed to be settling down to some degree of standardisation, the appearance of the formal document hands of chanceries and business hands of a cursive type introduced new variations. When these hands recombined to form new cursive book hands, it seems that various letter forms appeared in new permutations and combinations.
more about a
Histories of Individual Letters

History of Scripts
What is Paleography?

If you are looking at this page without frames, there is more information about medieval writing to be found by going to the home page (framed) or the site map (no frames).
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 25/5/2006.