Medieval Writing
Histories of Individual Letters

The histories of individual letters of the alphabet are not only significant because they represent the building blocks for scripts. They are also significant in relation to the way in which paleographers and historians have classified scripts. In fact, the designation of a script by a name, such as Caroline minuscule or cursiva anglicana, does not represent a bounded entity in which all the components are similar or different to those of another script to the same degree or even in similar ways. Scripts are infinitely variable, with borrowings of certain letters from others and idiosyncratic developments. The designation of a piece of handwriting as belonging to a particular script may rely on certain general characteristics, such as roundedness as against angularity, or slope of the pen, but also on the forms of letters, often concentrating on certain key letters which are considered to be diagnostic for each script.

The more closely you examine any particular page of writing, the more you may be tempted to see complexities in the origins of the various letter forms. The forms of individual letters do not necessarily evolve in a simple fashion, as specific variant characteristics appear at different times and in scripts designed for different purposes.

At the purely practical level, if you have a piece of unkown old writing in front of you, it helps to know the range of possibilities for specific letter forms, particularly those relating to the appropriate date range or the specific function of the document. Those who decode old documents for research purposes may carry around little cheat sheets of letter forms, if only to help them get their eye in.

The following little histories do not pretend to be comprehensive, but they may show some trends.

History of Scripts
What is Paleography?

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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 4/8/2010.