A Project in Caroline Miniscule

Guntram von Wolkenstein

This project started out simply as a calligraphic exercise; it is much more stimulating to copy an actual document instead of just rows and rows of letters. I used the Caroline Minuscule form as illustrated in David Harris’ ‘The Art of Calligraphy’, the choice of style being very easy since it fits in with my Frankish persona.

History

Caroline Minuscule is also known as Carolingian Minuscule, Carlovingian Minuscule, and Caroline Half-Uncial, and occasionally also as Tours Minuscule. The script took shape during the 8th and 9th centuries in the Frankish kingdoms, specifically during the rule of Charlemagne, who gave it its initial impetus. Charlemagne had great respect for learning and wished for classical writings as well as religious and legal material to be copied and distributed as widely as possible. This required an easily legible, easily written script which evolved gradually as scribes began to adapt the letters so they could be written faster. Caroline Minuscule was influenced by a number of older scripts, primarily Roman Half-uncial and Luxeuil Minuscule. Many of the changes which shaped Caroline Minuscule took place in the court school in Aachen, where the royal records were kept. The script evolved there was neat, legible, and could be written at speed. A deciding factor which influenced its rise was Charlemagne’s decree in 769 that all books and record should henceforth be kept in this script.

The script spread rapidly throughout Charlemagne’s empire and beyond its borders, and became as much of an internationally used script as there could be at that time. It took some time to cross to England (the first examples known are from 956), but likewise when the Gothic scripts eventually became dominant on the continent in the beginning of the 11th century, Caroline Minuscule still remained in use in England until well into the 12th century.

A Brief Digression for Alcuin

While I have not mentioned Alcuin so far, he does deserve some mention since he was at least as much involved as Charlemagne in the evolution of Caroline Minuscule. Alcuin was a Benedictine monk from York who joined the court of Charlemagne, and was made master of the scriptorium and the palace school at Aachen. His responsibilities included overseeing Charlemagne’s program of copying and education, and as such he was intimately involved in the decisions which gave rise to the Caroline Minuscule script. He is credited with directly approving some of the features which made the Caroline Minuscule so much more readable than the Luxeuil Minuscule. Alcuin was made abbot of St Martin’s of Tours in 796 (thus the alternate term Tours Minuscule), and died around 806, at the age of 71.

Characteristics of Caroline Minuscule

As with every script, Caroline Minuscule has a number of variations which usually are due to parallel development in different geographical areas. And as time passes, the variations gradually change until the script either dies out or metamorphoses into a new, clearly different style. However, regardless of variations, there are always certain characteristics which define each particular script.

Basic style: Caroline Minuscule letters are evenly rounded with a minim height of three to five nib widths. The pen angle lies between 35 and 45 degrees, and some versions have a forward tilt of approximately 10 degrees, whereas others have completely upright letters. Alcuin’s handwriting appears to fall inbetween, sometimes being slanted slightly forward (though usually much less than 10 degrees) and sometimes being upright. I have attempted to maintain a slight forward slant.

Ascenders and descenders: Earlier scripts such as the Luxeuil Minuscule had comparatively long ascenders and descenders. Caroline Minuscule standardised on ascenders and descenders which had the same height as the minims; this created a well-proportioned script and also made the layout easy since now all letters could be contained between four equidistant lines.


A sample of Luxeuil Minuscule

Serifs: Interestingly enough, there are clearly different versions of the serifs used on ascenders and descenders – compare the examples provided by Drogin and Harris. Harris shows only the ‘club’ shape, whereas Drogin has three variations. I have found examples of all three, but the examples also indicate that the ‘club’ shape is the traditional form, the others coming into use only later in the 9th century.


Three styles of serif.

Ligatures: Caroline Minuscule has very few ligatures (i.e. combining two letters into one shape – like æ), increasing its legibility. The main ligatures are st and ct, and rt and nt occur less frequently. Drogin points out that e and t were occasionally tied to the following letters, but this seems to be a convenience more than a ligature. I have not used any ligatures, although I have tied letters together extensively.

Capitals: As the name implies, Caroline Minuscule is a lower-case script. Capitals were formed using earlier scripts, primarily Roman Rustic, Roman Half-uncial, and Roman Square Capitals. Since my intention was to practice Caroline Minuscule without getting myself confused with other scripts, in my practice manuscript I stuck to Caroline Minuscule throughout.

Personal Adaptations

Because this did not start out as a proper Arts & Sciences project, I made some personal adaptations which I later persisted with to keep a consistent appearance.

i and j: Since i and j consist of simple, single strokes I used the same club serif as for the similarly simple l, rather than the curved serif used for ‘combination’ letters such u and r, even though Harris uses the curved form. The period examples I have seen either have a curved serif, of just have shapeless blob.
s: Harris has both the traditional ‘long’ form of s as well as a modern-looking equivalent. I am sad to say that I chose the modern form for practice rather than the traditional form. Curiousy, I found that the modern s was actually much harder to write than the traditional s.
y: The y should have a dot above it; I left this out to make the text more readable.

References

Most of these reference were simply useful for their reproductions of period manuscripts with different variations of Caroline Minuscule. The book which I used to practice the style was David Harris’ The Art of Calligraphy.

Backes, Magnus, & Dölling, Regine. Art of the Dark Ages. New York, 1969.
Beckwith, John. Early Medieval Art. London, 1964.
Bologna, Giulia. Illuminated Manuscripts. New York, 1995.
Boussard, Jacques. The Civilization of Charlemagne. New York, 1968.
Drogin, Marc. Medieval Calligraphy. Montclair NJ, 1980.
Grant, Michael. Dawn of the Middle Ages. Maidenhead, 1981.
Harris, David. The Art of Calligraphy. London, 1995.
Lynskey, Marie. Illumination for Calligraphers. Wellingborough, 1990.
Munz, Peter. Life in the Age of Charlemagne. London, 1969.