An introduction to medieval scripts

Can you tell the difference between Carolingian Minuscule and Gothic script? Watch this video and you’ll learn how.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:00] We are looking at a medieval book. This isn’t printed, this is handwritten.

Dr. Erik Kwakkel: [0:08] It’s handwritten with a quill, with a reed.

Dr. Harris: [0:11] Over time there were different ways of writing.

Dr. Kwakkel: [0:14] The very peculiar thing and interesting thing about medieval script is that you learn to write in the style of the region where you learned to write.

Dr. Harris: [0:21] I think that’s true today. Sometimes I can tell if someone learned how to write in England versus in the United States. It looks different.

Dr. Kwakkel: [0:28] It looks so different to a medieval scholar that you can actually, from a simple glance — often, not always — tell if a scribe was trained in Germany, France, England, Italy, Spain.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Can you also tell when they were writing?

Dr. Kwakkel: [0:40] Well, that’s the magical thing. That’s something that you feel. You open the book, and it speaks to you. In the Middle Ages between the year 800 when Charles the Great was ruling and the later Middle Ages, around 1500, there’s two major book scripts. There is Caroline Minuscule and there is the Gothic Textualis, which is the Gothic script. In the Carolingian Age it is the 9th, 10th centuries.

Dr. Harris: [1:01] They standardized the script.

Dr. Kwakkel: [0:00] They wrote in the Caroline Minuscule, which is the script of the Carolingians.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] This book that we’re looking at now, what about this script?

Dr. Kwakkel: [1:15] This shouts at me, “I’m 11th century,” but it also tells me, “I’m very late in the 11th century,” and I can tell that by tiny, little details. The study of medieval script is all about the detail. You see the M has three legs, as Ms do, and they go left, left, left. This tells me that’s the Carolingian type of M. Whereas there is an N, which both legs go to the right.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] When you opened this you immediately saw that Carolingian script?

Dr. Kwakkel: [1:35] The first thing you see is, this is Carolingian script, and you see that, for example, by the three legs of the M. But, if you look very carefully, you also see the first features of the script that is the successor of Caroline Minuscule, which is Gothic script.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] We have a combination here.

Dr. Kwakkel: [1:50] We have a combo, yeah. This is a hybrid script. You can see that the scribe is already moving towards the new Gothic style, but is still hanging on to his old way of writing.

Dr. Harris: [1:58] Where do you see Gothic features?

[1:59] Dr. Kwakkel. Gothic script you see, for example, in a feature we call angularity, which means everything that is perfectly round in the Carolingian Age gets sort of flattened. You see it first in the H, you see the top of the round part of the H is flat. I sometimes call it ski slopes.

[2:14] The P has it as well. The C and the O don’t, but they do later. You can also see it by the PP combination. For example, here I see the PP. I can see that they are separated, so I know they are before around 1150, because my own research shows that — and other people’s research as well — that around 1150 there’s a shift from putting these two separate on the page to combining them.

Dr. Harris: [2:38] The Carolingian script is developed by the Carolingians, by Charlemagne and his court in what we would consider Germany. Where is the Gothic developed?

Dr. Kwakkel: [2:47] That’s the interesting thing. The Caroline Minuscule was deliberately designed in a very short period of time, whereas Gothic script naturally evolved.

Dr. Harris: [3:03] Charlemagne imposed that script on the documents, on the books that were produced by his court, and by the scriptoria that he set up, but the Gothic script evolves more organically.

Dr. Kwakkel: [3:06] The empire that Charles the Great had to rule was so large that many people wrote in different styles, and people couldn’t read each other’s books or each other’s documents.

Dr. Harris: [3:14] Makes it very hard to rule an empire, then.

Dr. Kwakkel: [3:16] Yes, so one script was needed. Hence came the Carolingian script, but Gothic is a very slow developer. It starts in the late 11th century, you can already see it here in the late 11th century. There are some Gothic features, angularity, the feet might sometimes go to the right.

[3:37] From the late 11th century, it takes almost until the middle of the 13th century for that new script to develop. In Gothic script, there’s a process called lateral compression. There’s a compression of the sentence, in that you pushed a sentence into a smaller space.

Dr. Harris: [3:46] Why?

Dr. Kwakkel: [3:47] We don’t know.

[0:00] [laughs]

Dr. Harris: [3:48] Fair enough.

Dr. Kwakkel: [3:49] There is this movement. You can measure it all over Europe, but the result is letters get to be placed closer together. They, ultimately, if you push hard enough on both sides of the line, they will start to overlap.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] It gets harder and harder to read, I would imagine.

Dr. Kwakkel: [4:02] Yes, and there’s more abbreviations that come in. Ultimately, more text will fit on the page, especially if you have a large Carolingian script. It will perhaps contain about a fourth of what you can fit on the same page in a Gothic script.

Dr. Harris: [4:15] Did that make the books more cheap to produce?

Dr. Kwakkel: [4:17] Well, if the book was made commercially, you have to conclude that it’s cheaper. Is the drive that we want more text on the page for aesthetical reasons, or other reasons so that we have to flip less often? Or is it for economical reasons?

Dr. Harris: [0:00] I imagine we don’t know the answer to that question.

Dr. Kwakkel: [0:00] We don’t know the answer to that one, yeah.

[0:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Erik Kwakkel and Dr. Beth Harris, "An introduction to medieval scripts," in Smarthistory, December 16, 2015, accessed May 24, 2024,