Medieval Writing
The process of production of manuscript books and documents was laborious and slow, so it is not surprising that standard forms of abbreviation of words became widely used. What may be a little surprising is some of the kinds of words that were abbreviated and the types of works in which abbreviations commonly occur. It is not simply a case that very formal works were written out in full while more rapidly written works were heavily abbreviated. In some cases abbreviation has a different significance.
There is some system in the way that Latin words were abbreviated, with certain prefixes and suffixes shortened in a standard way. There are also standard lists of abbreviated Latin words that can be consulted. (See Martin 1976, also Bischoff 1990, also Hector 1968, also Wright 1879. A comprehensive treatment is available on CD-ROM. See the website Abbreviationes.)
The presence of abbreviations can be recognised by the use of standard abbreviation marks. Usually these are simple slashes through or above letters, but occasionally the abbreviation marks are quite elaborate and seem to represent a calligraphic flourish rather than a saving of time or effort. An example is the papal knot.
abbreviation Sample from an early 12th century English royal charter (British Library, Campbell Charters xxi 6). By permission of the British Library.
The above example shows abbreviations to the words archiepiscopus Willelmus (Archbishop William) are indicated by a simple hooked line above the letters ps and a slash through ll.
abbreviation Sample from a papal bull of 1127 (Saint Gall, Stiftsarchiv, Abteilung Pfaefers, III 6 a). (From Steffens 1929)
The characteristic figure of eight abbreviation mark known as a papal knot is part of the elaborate calligraphy of this papal bull. These elaborations were also found on German imperial diplomas of the period. The abbreviated words are episcopum and episcoporum, the suffix indicated by the standard elongated r with a slash through it.
A very special form of abbreviation was used for particularly sacred words, including the names of the deity. These abbreviations for the so-called nomina sacra were used in the most formal and precisely written works. They seem to represent something psychologically interesting; a desire not to look God too closely in the face or a metaphorical aversion of the eyes in the presence of the most holy concepts. They are not there to save space or speed up production, but as a symbol of something significant.
abbreviation Segment from an 8th century gospel (British Library Royal 1 B VII, f.55). By permission of the British Library.
This segment is an abbreviation for iesu christi filii dei (Jesus Christ the son of God).
alleluia Segment from the 8th century Vespasian Psalter (British Library, Cotton Vespasian A1).By permission of the British Library.
In this rather unusual example, the word alleluia is progressively shortened in each line, creating visual patterning on the page.
When it came to writing at speed, systems of shorthand were known in Classical antiquity. One in particular, the Tironian notes, was in use until around the 10th century. However, it fell out of use with the exception of a few surviving symbols, the most common being the symbol for et. Rapid writing, and the sort of crammed writing that was used in the glosses of university texts to fit masses of material on to a page, used extensive abbreviation rather than special systems of shorthand symbols. (See Parkes 1991)
Tironian notes Samples of Tironian notes from a 10th century manuscript (British Library, add. ms. 37518, f.41). (From New Palaeographical Society 1908)
et Sample from a 12th century charter (British Library, Campbell Charters xi 6). By permission of the British Library.
The above example shows the Tironian et in the first word, as used for many centuries before it was overtaken by the symbol which we describe today as an ampersand.
Abbreviations took a number of forms. For some small words or words in common use in documents there was a very brief standard abbreviation. Some combinations of letters within a word were abbreviated in a standard way in different words. Proper nouns such as names of people and places also had specific abbreviations. As well as the contraction marks of hooks or slashes, superscript letters were used to differentiate similar contractions. Some of the abbreviations developed for the Latin language were carried over into English, although vernacular languages do not seem to have employed contractions to the same degree as some of the more heavily abbreviated Latin texts.

Nomina Sacra

Common Words

Contractions within Words

Proper Nouns

English Abbreviations

What is Paleography?

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