Medieval Writing
The History of y

The letter y occurs only very rarely in Latin, in words of exotic origin, so examples are not to be found in all our example sets. In general, it is not a very difficult letter to recognise, the main variation being in which way the descender curves.

rustic capital y We have no example in square capitals, but this example from rustic capital script shows a somewhat wavy version of the standard majuscule y as we know it today.
Only occasional examples from the pre-Carolingian scripts or National Hands give us a general idea of the letter rather than a detailed comparison.
insular minuscule y This example of y from a 10th century insular minuscule is from a vernacular Old English text. It shows a very curvy letter with a curly descender.
insular minuscule y A later example of insular minuscule, from a 12th century vernacular text, shows a rather more angular letter which is dotted. It is a bit intriguing that in some medieval scripts i was not dotted, but y was.
Luxeuil minuscule y In this example from the specialised book hand known as Luxeuil minuscule, a variant of Merovingian minuscule, the letter y is also dotted.
old Italian y An old Italian book hand of the 7th century displays a simple, angular y with no dot.
In the later formal Gothic book hands, y is still a rare letter as so many texts are in Latin. It really only becomes relatively common in English language texts.
small Gothic y This example of y comes from a 13th century Bible, in the tiny and simplified form of Gothic textura used for these compact volumes. It is dotted and the descender is short.
Gothic textura y A somewhat informal Gothic textura from Germany from around the early 16th century shows a straight and angular undotted y. This is from a Latin text.
Gothic textura y This simple and angular undotted y comes from a formal Gothic textura script in the Dutch language, from the later 15th century.
Gpthic prescissa y This very elaborate, curly and decorative y with a fancy s shaped flourish for a dot is from the highly formal script known as Gothic prescissa, used only in very high grade manuscripts. This example is from the 14th century.
batarde y This example of y from a French language work in bâtarde book hand from the 15th century is angular, formal and undotted, but the descender kinks to the right rather than the left.
batarde y A less formal French vernacular bâtarde book hand of the 15th century shows and extravagantly curved letter with an odd hooked descender.
In the later cursive book and document hands, y appears more frequently because of the increasing appearance of vernacular languages in written texts. There is one peculiar usage in English from around the 15th century. The sound th had been written in Old English and Middle English utilising a runic symbol known as a thorn. This looked rather like a y, but was distinguished from it where the two occurred together. Later the thorn disappeared from use, and a y, in no way different to that used for the y sound, was used to represent th. So ye olde is simply pronounced the old. Another myth busted!
French cursive y This rather curly reverse curved y comes from an informally written French language document of the mid 14th century.
English chancery y This curly y with a broken necked look and a reverse looped descender is from a document hand produced by the English chancery in the French language in the 14th century.
English cursive y A 14th century English cursive book hand in the English language displays a dotted y.
English cursive y This very plain y with a reverse loop comes from a very ugly and untidy cursive document hand of the mid 15th century.
English chanery y This heavily sloping y with an extravagant loop comes from the endorsement on a petition to the English chancery of the mid 15th century, in a somewhat informal cursive hand.
Dutch/German cursive y This example of y comes from a cursive book hand of the late 15th or early 16th century in a Dutch or German dialect. It has the simple, angular, undotted form.
German formal cursive y A late 15th century German language legal document in a formal, but nonetheless cursive, script shows this rather extravagant y with the top closed and the descender in a big reverse loop.
French cursive y A French cursive book hand of the late 15th or early 16th century has produced this simple angular y.
French cursive y This simple y with a plain diagonal descender is from a late 15th or early 16th century bilingual Franch/Latin psalter, produced in a neat cursive book hand.
The humanistic minuscule book hands did away with extravagant curls to either left or right, and made y into a neat little letter.
humanistic display y This simple and elegant y comes from a 15th century humanistic display script. It is in the Latin language, but a y crept in there somehow.
humanistic minuscule y This example from a book hand of the late 15th century uses the dotted y with a more elongated diagonal descender.
Basically, y should not cause too much trouble as it is usually pretty recognisable. Some cursive scripts use a g which looks like a y with a horizontal stroke through the top. There can also be some fun and games with English spelling, where the letters g, w and y seem to be used interchangeably in some words, as well as the runic yogh. Makes you wonder a bit about the pronunciation of Middle English.
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 22/2/2007.