A Medievalist’s skill useful in everyday life

Most weeks, MA MARS (Medieval and Renaissance Studies) students taking the Manuscripts and Documents course, taught by Professor David d’Avray and Dr Marigold Norbye, agonise over at least two pieces of homework. These are transcriptions of manuscript medieval texts, which familiarise us with paleography, or reading old scripts. Other postgrad students have probably encountered a group of us medievalists in the common room, trying to figure out whether something in the week’s text reads ‘sive,’ ‘sine,’ or ‘fuit.’ Though highly aggravating at times, being able to read scripts used 1200, 900 or 500 years ago is immensely satisfying. And it helps with today’s handwriting, I think.

At first thought, one might think that the closer we get to today, the easier it would be to read a script. But we all have had the (doubtful) pleasure of reading our tutors’ comments on our essays, or have heard of or seen scribbled medicine prescriptions that could kill. The great thing about medieval scripts is that they were more or less uniform across Europe, at least from the times of Charlemagne. As anyone who has studied medieval history with Dr Antonio Sennis or Prof. d’Avray can tell you, Charlemagne was crucial in creating letterforms that we use to this day. This was an attempt at centralising power – uniformity of written documents was to aid that. So, the variety of scripts used across his empire, which were not only different but almost illegible to those unfamiliar with their quirks, was replaced with what is called the Carolingian minuscule – which is similar to Times New Roman.

David D writing

And this general uniformity continued throughout the various mutations that the Carolingian miniscule underwent. The main scripts, or hands, in the Middle Ages following were the Proto-Gothic, Gothic, and Secretary. Although variation was unavoidable and experts can tell the difference between something written in the first half of the 12th century in France or Italy , the basic letterforms were similar, and their development across time is more or less easy to trace.

Cotton MS

Gothic script is perhaps the most familiar to those outside the niche circle of medievalists. Who hasn’t seen a once-edgy and cool and now wonderfully trashy tattooed word or phrase in that instantly-recognisable, heavy, and angular font? The problem we face when reading it in its original form is that, probably because of the aesthetics of the time, the scribes who painstakingly transferred words onto parchment would consider it all the better if the letters of each word were as close to one another as possible, usually touching (‘biting,’ in paleographers’ jargon). This may not seem like a problem, until one realizes that the basic parts of a letter are an upright line (minim) and a bowl, and that three lines next to each other could read ‘ui,’ ‘iu,’ ‘ni,’ ‘in,’ or ‘m.’ Moreover, we are used to our d’s and t’s and b’s extending nicely upwards. That was not the case in the Middle Ages, and sometimes there is no telling whether what you see is an ‘ot,’ ‘oi,’ or ‘oc.’

Incidentally, this is how I came to realise why people find my wonderful handwriting so hard to read. There is absolutely no differentiation of what letters my minims make up, and the bowls bite into anything and everything. I apologise to those who have read and who will read my exam scripts!

Agata writing

As more things needed to be written at a quicker pace, Gothic began morphing into a cursive script known as Secretary, and further deviations between scripts used for different purposes took place across Europe. And that is when things became unpleasant. All of Charlemagne’s work would soon be undone. Since the need for writing grew, and more people needed to write more efficiently, the scripts diverged, and ultimately became very idiosyncratic (though the bulk of that happened beyond the scope of what we medievalists will be examined on, thankfully). Nonetheless, this was the beginning of the development of personal handwritings.

Though I hear that cursive is no longer taught in elementary school, probably most of my coursemates, not to mention our teachers, were taught cursive to write more efficiently. But even that varies/d from country to country. I was first taught cursive in elementary school in Poland. Then, I was taught cursive at an American international school. The letterforms, while necessarily retaining the basic shape of the Latin alphabet, were slightly different and the result was a very different look to the writing. Nonetheless, it goes without saying that people have VERY different handwriting, even if they were taught the same type of cursive when they were children.

And so, back to deciphering the hand-written word. A practical use of learning a 12th century script is having the diligence and preparation for reading essay comments by the members of our department.

John writing


Agata Zielinska

Agata Zielinska is a student at UCL History on the Medieval and Renaissance Studies MA programme, having previously completed her undergraduate degree here. Agata is also one of the department’s Student Ambassadors.

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