Reading Old Writing (palaeography)

Several weeks ago, I was sitting at my computer working with the manuscript Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 5508 (Collectio Diessensis), when a friend looked over my shoulder and remarked how clear and easy it is to read. It certainly is, just look at the top of col. 2, fol. 88a recto:

clm 5508 88ar col 2He said that it was much easier than the papyri he works with. He’s writing about the use of numbers in New Testament papyri. New Testament papyri look like this:

Papyrus 37 - verso.jpg

NT Papyrus 37, verso (U Michigan, Ann Arbor Library #1570)

Papyrus 37 – verso” by Unknown – University of Michigan, Ann Arbor Library. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I said that this manuscript is easy to read because it is written in Caroline minuscule, a bookhand that originated in the eighth century, although you can trace its development from other, earlier scripts. A manuscript a bit earlier than Munich, Clm 5508, is this one of the Collectio Hispana Gallica Augustodunensis — much harder to read:

cropped 0183This bookhand is called Corbie a-b, and it’s an eighth-century hand associated with the scriptorium (writing-room) of the monastery at Corbie, in modern France. As you can see, it’s a lot harder to read. But once you’ve been working with it for a while, it becomes easier. Your eyes grow accustomed to the letter shapes, and it starts to feel a bit natural. I included the same portion of text both times for your enjoyment.

This is the funny thing about bookhands. We are prone to say that Caroline minuscule ‘won’ because it was the best, clearest script ever invented. It is the pinnacle of centuries of evolution. But, as Rosamond McKitterick observed in an article somewhere (worst citation ever), if this is the case, then why develop Gothic scripts that, to our eyes, are much harder to read?

Malmesbury Bible – Gothic script

Now, I’m not going to try and overturn the idea that Caroline minuscule is an attractive, easy-to-read bookhand. I think it is. But some element of why we find it easy to read does lie in the early modern age. You see, when the Renaissance humanists were hunting down manuscripts to copy, they mistakenly believed that Caroline minuscule was actually some kind of Roman minuscule hand. Therefore, when they made copies, they produced very elegant manuscripts in a mock-Caroline minuscule hand. I have seen it in several manuscripts in Venice and Florence.

When Gutenberg came around to making his printing press, he based his original type on this popular bookhand then current. Mind you, when I look at it, it does feel a bit Gothic. It’s very vertical. But I think it’s closer to Caroline than to Gothic? Anyway, here it is:

St Jerome’s intro to Old Testament, Gutenberg Bible

And all of our fonts are descended from Gutenberg, one way or another. As a result, alongside any of its natural qualities, there are also ‘accidents’ pertaining to the history of Caroline minuscule that help make it easy for us to read.

And, really, it is quite attractive. Those Carolingians knew what they were doing.


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