Carolingian Minuscule


Calligraphy. The word itself means beautiful writing.

There are many kinds of calligraphy from each of the expanses of the globe.  Of course in the western world we use some version of the Latin (Roman) Alphabet.  We rightly trace this alphabet back to the Roman Empire. It expanded so far due to the military might of the Roman military machine that itself ran on writings of their scribes.

When the Roman Empire broke apart the writing of Europe became isolated and the local scripts became highly varied in a very short span of time.  Though each used the Latin Alphabet, they changed how they wrote it.  Then along came Charlemagne. The story goes that the Great Charlemagne wanted one script by which he could read no matter where he went in his Empire.  His Secretary and Leading innovator of Universities ,Alcuin of York, was hired away from the Vatican.  Alcuin knew of a script that was simple, easy to write and clear to read.

So with Alcuin of York championing the script it became the standard court script for Charlemagne.  The script, to this day, is even named after him, Carolingian Minuscule.

I don’t know why I am so enamoured of this calligraphy script except to say that I learned to write it because I wanted to write my girl friend a love letter in a script she could easily read.  (We’re married now.)  Carolingian looks very much like the letters we use today.  Since then I have actually had my hands on documents written by the hand of Alcuin of York himself.  In fact the background image for this blog is one of the pictures I took of that Manuscript.

I thought I would share some of those pictures with you as well as some links to other manuscripts written in Carolingian.  One of the really neat things about Carolingian is that it too changed as time progressed. How the script is written, what kind of capitals are used and such can be used to tell you when the document was written pretty accurately.

The pictures below are from the “Compendium Cantica Canticorum,” located at the Lilly Library  (Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, USA) listed as “Poole 82” with the provenance done by Christopher de Hamel, Ph.D a Donnely Fellow Librarian of Corpus Christi College at the University of Cambridge. This manuscript is a side by side commentary on the Song of Solomon.  You may click on any image to see a much larger more detailed version of it.

Alcuin of York 005

This picture shows the verses of the “Song of Solomon,” on the left of the page and the commentary on the right of the page.  Notice that the scripture is written in Uncial.  For many centuries the only script considered “good enough,” for the Christian Holy Scripture was Uncial.  Notice that the larger letter or Capitals for both the Uncial and the Carolingian Minuscule are the same.

Alcuin of York 001

Here we get a better view of Alcuin of York’s writing in Carolingian Minuscule.  Notice that the ascenders all have “club” serifs.  Frankly I find club serifs less than aesthetically pleasing.  However, that is how the letters were written by Alcuin of York himself.

Alcuin of York 008

This is the recto of the manuscript.  Large beautiful capitals of Uncial origin. The x height serifs are oblong serifs that are kind of beak like.  Almost as if Alcuin was writing in a hurry.  In fact if you look at the writing it seems almost sloppy as one might write when taking notes.  Still a beautiful example of Carolingian Minuscule.


Alcuin of York 013

I love this page.  Besides showing off Alcuin’s hand of Carolingian Minuscule we also see some worm damage holes as well as the scored lines that are not square.

Recently I was looking over various digitized manuscript collections. Some of them showed the Carolingian Minuscule (Caroline) script and I thought some comparison would be fun to look at.  You will need to click on the image at the bottom left of the screen to see the manuscripts themselves.  I could not link directly to the images due to how they set up their webpages.

St John’s College MS 28  It is described by St John’s as, “Two Anglo-Saxon manuscripts containing Latin texts, bound early together: fols. 1-4, 7, 78-81, Martyrdoms of Saints Peter and Paul, in Caroline script, mid 10th century, with original and added drawings; fols. 5-6, 8-77, Gregory I, De cura pastorali, in square Anglo-Saxon minuscule, turn of the 10th/11th centuries.”

This script has open round letters and split serifs on some ascenders, but all X height letter have beak serifs.  Some of the ascenders seem to have beak serifs but I question if that was the intent or if it was more likely sloppy work by the scribe who was trying to make split serifs.  Beautiful lettering isn’t it?

St John’s College MS 154  It is described by St Johns as, “Ælfric, Grammar, etc., in Latin and Old English, early 11th century, from Durham.”

This script has open round letters, though the “q” is rather flat on top, and all letters with serifs seem to have split serifs including the x height letters.

Merton College MS 160 It is described by Merton as, “Hildegard of Bingen, Sciuias siue Visiones ac reuelationes: prophetic visions in Latin, without decoration, German(?), late 12th or early 13th century.”

You can see some progression in the hands from Alcuin of Yorks to Merton College MS 160.  Alcuin’s capitals are very obviously Uncial Majuscule letters.  We see progression in the capitals in the three manuscripts being linked to. The last manuscript from Merton College begins to show the start of the rigidity of some early Gothic Hands.  Notice the “o” and the “g” especially, though other letters show other traits as well.

I don’t expect people to fall in love with Carolingian as much as I have, but I do hope that I have managed to share some of the character and beauty of the script.  It is a script that was used for hundreds of years and in that time, naturally evolved.

6 responses to “Carolingian Minuscule

  1. Pingback: The Year in Review | scribescribbling·

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    • I have no way to tell really. However, we can make some educated guesses based on “mistakes,” we see in the writing.

      In the picture Alcuin of York 01 3rd line the 13th letter in we see what is presumed to be an “l”. This is a minuscule “l” and should therefor have a club serif on it. Instead it is just a line down to the body of the letter. It starts at the top hanging off of a line that is about a half to 3/4 nib width in length to the left of the “l”.

      This could perhaps indicate that the clubs were secondary strokes. We do not know this because perhaps this was not a mistake at all but was a conscious choice on the part of Alcuin.

      It is interesting to note that this letter curves from the top out to the right before curving slightly back to the left and forming the rest of the letter “l”. If we compare this to the other “l”s on the manuscript we can imagine they all do this and a secondary stroke is made to fill in the white space of the curve forming the club serif.

      But that is our imagination. It may even be correct. But we do not know and short of a ductus written by Alcuin, showing each stroke, (or a detailed description thereof,) we simply can’t know.

      We can and should make our best guesses and if we are so inspired, try it out for ourselves using similar materials as much as possible. Find out what works best in our experience. Perhaps that would bring us close to a conclusive answer.

  3. How do you decide what to write about when you make blog posts such as this one? I’m sure there is a plethora of educational material you would like to share.

    • It really depends on what I’ve been doing recently and what materials and resources I have in hand. I have been doing a lot of posts about ink and parchment and tools and that’s great.

      But I am also a calligrapher interested in historical writing. So I thought I would share some information about my favorite historical script.

      I am planning out a set of posts on writing calligraphy. I have more planning and work to do with that before I will be posting it though.

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