Have you ever tried to write a love letter by hand? What did you choose to do: write it in separate letters or joined-up letters? Which one would make the best impression? And, very importantly, which one would be most legible?

All through the Middle Ages texts were written by hand. Even after the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century the handwritten book did not disappear immediately. Every scribe (?) could choose from several script styles to write his (or her!) text. It all depended on the purposes the text was meant for (just like our love letter). For a book for a rich and well-paying nobleman you would automatically choose a well executed book-hand; for a personal administrative document a quick cursive (?) script was good enough.

Scripts evolved slowly through the ages. The manuscripts in this exhibition are all written in a gothic script. Gothic scripts were used from c.1200 until c.1500 (even longer in some places). Three major categories of gothic script can be distinguished, all of which could be executed meticulously, or jotted down sloppily:

  1. Textualis: the general book hand, until c. 1400 used in all types of books. We find this script in Oxford Bodley 264 and Paris BNF fr. 837. One of its main characteristics is the ‘a’ instead of an ‘a-without a roof’.
  2. Cursiva: the script generally used for administrative purposes. It can be executed more rapidly. Examples in this exhibition are Berlin Ms.Germ.Qu. 719 with a rapid cursive, while the Geraardsbergen manuscript has a more stylized cursive script. Characteristic are the loops on the l, k, h and b.
  3. Hybrida: introduced in the second quarter of the fifteenth century. It has characteristics of both textualis and cursiva. The cursive script in the Geraardsbergen manuscript is very close to a hybrid script.

Until c.1400 most manuscripts were written in a textualis, while cursive script was used for administrative documents, but after 1400 the cursiva intruded more and more on textualis territorium. The manuscripts in this exhibition clearly show this change in applied script for ‘literary’ manuscripts: the textualis manuscripts are pre-1400 and the cursive manuscripts are post-1400. After the introduction of the hybrid script in the textualis lost even more ground. For more information on these changes in scripts, see Clerks vs. Monks.

The field of research that studies scripts is called paleography (?). Paleographers have drawn the outlines of the evolution of script. Even though there are general trends in this evolution in western Europe, many regional styles, or characteristics only found in a special monastery, do occur. This enables us to date and locate manuscripts, and sometimes, if we are lucky, we can recognize a certain scribe by his or her personal traits.

For information on manuscript pages and their decoration, click here.

Or you can return to the entrance of this room.

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