Medieval Writing
Cursive Document Hand

Script Type : minuscule cursive

Date : 15th century

Location : France

Function : document hand

This example is a bit different, so it needs some explanation. At some stage an old French land transaction deed has been turned into a book cover. In the process it was chopped off on one side and the bottom, folded, and had large hunks of bookbinder's twine sewn through holes in it. Then over the centuries it has got torn, stiff and folded, coated in glue, grubby and rubbed and stained into illegibility in places. It is pretty much impossible to get the full picture of what it is about. So what is the point of putting it up here at all?
Well, the script itself is interesting, being the kind of flashy flourished style that looks good superficially, but proves to be a bit of a pig to read as many of the small letters are done in very cursive style and variable form. There are many abbreviations and endings left off, indicated only by vague flourishes. In fact, it can be hard to tell what are abbreviation marks and what are just flourishes. The document is in Latin and the family medievalist claims that by the 15th century scribes were so bad at Latin that they had forgotten what the endings should be, so they did them in a vague and airy fashion. Document paleographers sometimes have one advantage over book paleographers. Their items may be securely dated, especially in the later middle ages, and this one, for all its other deficiences, has the date,1459, still clearly visible. Now if this had been an English document, I would have guessed its date, on the basis of the writing, to be 16th century, but it seems that the French were way ahead of the English in producing cursive hands with more style than substance. Anyway, if you go looking up old documents in archives, you will find that many of them are not like the show pony examples produced in paleography books. Because of the condition of the document, the illustration is a series of snippets, so you get a bit of an idea what the writing looks like, even if it is not clear exactly what it is about. OK, on with the show.
French land transaction deed of 1459, which has been turned into a book cover, from a private collection.
Pass cursor over letters to see enlarged examples taken from the page illustrated above.

Distinctive letters : This is a descendant of the French Secretary style, but a bit more simplified and untidy than the elegant stuff produced by the royal chancery. It has the stylish flourishes of long ascenders and descenders, sloped or curly.

Notably, long s is tall and sloping, extending well below the baseline, with a curled top. The letter f seems to be mainly differentiated from s by having the top curl extended into a closed loop. The short and curly s found at the ends of words has been simplified to a simple upward loop. As simple loopy flourishes at the ends of words are also used for abbreviation, this can be a bit confusing.

The letter d can have a straight backsloping ascender, particularly when found at the beginning of words, or a loopy ascender and open lower loop. The ascender of l can also be straight or loopy, although that of b seems to be always straight and vertical.

The letter g has the Secretary form of an open letter, like a y, closed with an extended horizontal stroke. The descender of q curves the same way as that of g, but it has a rather angular closed top.

The smaller letters are dificult. The letter a has the simple one chambered form. The letter e mostly has no closed loops and can look a bit like r, and c can look like an r as well. The letter r itself is simplified into a form which sometimes looks like z, and sometimes looks like a Gothic simplified r and sometimes looks like a squiggle. The letters with minims line up in little jaggy sequences, and it is very difficult to untangle the usual suspects of i (undotted), m, n, u and v, not to mention c, e, r and even t when it is made very short. It doesn't help that the forms of some of these letters seem to change when they are run together.

The letter x has one closed loop and a curved descender.

Although I have shown two different forms for i and j in the alphabet above, this is a bit of an illusion. The same extended form is used for both i and j (or consonantal i if you prefer) when it appears at the beginning of a word. Something similar happens with u and v, which are not actually differentiated, but when either appears at the beginning of a word, it has a lopsided appearance with a curly ascender.

There are no examples that I can find of k, w, y or z.

The thing is not in good enough condition to do a proper paleography exercise, but I might see if I can excise out a few more recognisable snippets for you to try for yourself. Meanwhile, run the cursor slowly across the segments given here to see what they say.

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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 25/7/2011.