Medieval Writing
The History of z

The letter z is a very rare letter in Latin, occurring only in proper nouns such as place or personal names. It is also rare in English, so much so that in the modern English speaking world we cannot even agree on how to pronounce its name. (One of my granddaughters used to refer to a certain stripey equid as a zedbra, in protest against the American zee for zeebra that was in some little song or chant she had. Couldn't be persuaded that both could be right. Sigh! Story of my education!)

The letter z is common in medieval French, and makes its appearance in Germanic languages. A graphic sign which looks exactly like a medieval long z is used in Latin in the abbreviation for the suffix -us. If it looks like a z does that make it a z? No, it makes it an abbreviation mark. I think. In some later medieval English legal documents it can appear in rather odd places, but the spelling of English at that time was a random and strange affair. In later 15th and 16th century cursive scripts, the letter r may be written exactly similar to a modern z , but it is definitely an r.
This earliest example from the scripts on this website is from a 10th century Visigothic book hand in Latin. It is a rather elaborate version of the long z with a curling descender.
On the other hand, another 10th century example, from a segment of a chronicle in the lingua romana, or precursor of French, uses the short z of modern form. So both are in existence simultaneously.
This example from a Latin 12th century legal document shows a much more unassuming version of the long z, which appears in a range of variations of form throughout the medieval period.
However, this example from a 13th century Bible in tiny Gothic glossing script uses the short form.
An example from a 13th century English chancery document in Latin shows a rather informal example of the long z with a relatively short descender.
This example, from a very formal 14th century Gothic rotunda book hand in the Italian language, seems to be part way between the long and short form.
This one is from England, but in the French language, from a 14th century royal writ, when the formal vernacular of the upper classes and the law was still French.
This one is from a 14th century French language legal document from France, and looks similar to its English counterpart.
This example appears in a 15th century Latin legal document from England, with a couple of extra flourishes.
This example appears on the endorsement to a petition to the English chancery of the 15th century, but it is used to represent the consonantal y. So when is a z not a z? When it is a yogh. Looks like z but sounds like y or g or something in between.
An example from a late 15th or 16th century Low German or Dutch vernacular prayer book uses a long form very similar to several of those shown bove.
A late 16th century Latin legal document from England, somewhat ancient and traditional in form, uses a long medieval z.
Meanwhile, an ordinary cursive hand of the 16th century in English uses the short z.
Basically, the letter z does not really evolve much over the centuries, but works through a range of variations. And that completes the Latin alphabet.
Histories of Individual Letters

History of Scripts
What is Paleography?

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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 2/8/2010.