Medieval Writing
Personal Cursive Hands - Monastic Pressmarks

Script Type : minuscule cursive

Script Family : Gothic

Date : These examples are from the 14th or 15th century.

Location :These examples are from England.

Function : used for a library inscription in a book

Monastic pressmark from the abbey of Bury St Edmunds (British Library, Royal MS 6. C. II). (From The New Palaeographical Society 1903)
Monastic pressmark from St Augustine's, Canterbury (British Library, Harley 3644). (From The New Palaeographucal Society 1903)
Monastic pressmark from the Franciscans of Canterbury (British LIbrary Royal 3. D. II). (From The New Palaeographical Society 1903)

Distinctive features : These are all inscriptions written in books in monastic libraries to show where they were to be shelved in the library. These so called monastic pressmarks generally date from the 14th or 15th centuries, whatever the age of the book they appear in. They must have got into an organisational mode in their libraries about then, as they acquired more books and built big scriptoria. They represent the working handwriting of literate men.

I have not put in alphabets for them, as this is not so much as exercise in deconstructing each example, as a bit of a compare and contrast to get an idea of the variability of hands, and what was deemed to be suitable for this particular purpose.

The first seems a relatively informal style of hand of the cursiva anglicana variety, but with a simple single chambered a. Interestingly, it refers to the book being in a closed cupboard.

The second is a much more formal, although cursive, hand which would not have looked out of place in a 14th century charter. Note the loopy ascenders with markedly different thick and thin strokes, and the split ascender at the beginning of the first word.

The third is rather more angular, although still with a closed loop d and a split top. In general style it looks a little retro; elderly librarian perhaps.

The large letters and numerals designate the bookshelves or cupboards and the shelf number where each book was stored. Note the use of Arabic numerals in some cases: they knew about them by this time, but they did not use them where Roman numerals were traditional, as in the chapters of liturgical books.

There is some fairly drastic abbreviation, as very similar inscriptions would have been entered into each book, and the text just had to be recognised, not decoded from scratch.

Pass the cursor along the lines of text and see if you can untangle the scripts. There is no paleography exercise for these, as this is all there is of them. The point is, this might just help to explain why there is no example on this site which exactly looks like the problem you might be trying to deal with at the moment. Cursive hands particularly do not all look alike.

These kinds of inscriptions in books also represent another avenue for research on the histories of manuscripts. It tells you where they have been.

Script Index

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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 12/2/2011.