Medieval Writing
The History of a (2)

From the 12th century on, English document hands underwent a series of stylistic changes, with the eventual development of recognisable house styles for certain writing establishments.

protogothic document a Formal protogothic document hands of the 12th century had a tendency to be tall and spiky. The upper loop of a could be exaggerated to almost become an ascender. This is from a formal charter.
This example is from a less formally scribed writ of the reign of Henry II, but the letter shape is essentially the same.
During the 13th century, the forms of the smaller letters tended to become closer to that of Gothic textura book hand, while the document hands were differentiated from these by tall curvy ascenders on the long letters.
The double closed loop a could also be employed in this context.
The more rounded and curly cursive document hand known in England as cursiva anglicana, which first appeared in the 13th century, also employed the double looped a.
French documentary scripts tended to favour the a without a loop, as in this 14th century example.
Both forms of a appeared in English documents, as they did in cursive book hands of the 14th and 15th centuries. The two examples shown here are from English charters of the 15th century. In a recent study of scripts used in English language writings Jane Roberts (Roberts 2005) identifies the two forms with what she refers to as Secretary and anglicana scripts respectively, but most of the script examples she gives use some degree of mixture of letter forms from the two named entities. Either form might turn up in either documents or books. Sometimes the upper loop was extended for calligraphic effect.
The French bâtarde script, employed in both books and documents, uses the form without a loop, as shown here from a 15th century book of hours.
In more hastily written scripts, the letter a could be written in a more truly cursive fashion, using only one stroke of the pen, as in this early 13th century document. This leads to some variation in precise letter from.
In later scripts, the double closed loop a could be made by simply passing a slash through the letter, rather than forming each loop separately. This example is actually from a mid 16th century Elizabethan document, but it is written in a conservative type of English chancery hand.

For later book hands, the advent of humanistic minuscule scripts led to a return to the forms of Caroline minuscule, with the single closed loop a, with or without a loop at the top, as we are still familiar with them today. While this is very neat and beautiful, some 16th century and later cursive hands became very casually written and hideous. In some cases all the vowels look a bit like random loops, and transcription may involve some serious educated guessing.

The letter a might be seen as having had an unruly youth, but settled down in its maturity to a fairly staid set of recognisable variations. It is hard to put any real geographical or chronological order on the distribution of the variants, apart from the transition from an open to a closed letter, but the later variations are all easy to recognise and read.

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Histories of Individual Letters

History of Scripts
What is Paleography?

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