Medieval Writing
Special English Letters

The English language has used the Roman alphabet from when it was first written down. However, English is not pronounced exactly like Latin, whatever the precise pronunciation of antique Latin might actually be. Several sounds in Old English did not correspond to any letters in the Roman alphabet, so certain runes were co-opted at an early stage to become special letters in the English alphabet.

The th sound is one that is unique to English speakers, and there were two signs in use for variants of this sound. The edh was used for the softer version in Old English.
This example comes from the Old English interlinear gloss of the Vespasian Psalter and probably dates from the 9th century.
This is how the letter appears in the 10th century Old English colophon to the Lindisfarne Gospels.
This more formal rendition of the edh has it in the form of a d with a slash through the ascender, as found in many insular minuscule scripts. This example is from a 12th century English language legal document.
A similar form appears in a bilingual charter of the 12th century, penned in a formal book hand.
The edh disappeared as a specific letter, but Middle English does sometimes show the letter d in words where we would now expect a th, such as fader or gader. I don't know what that tells us about pronunciation.
The character for the hard th was the thorn, which started off looking rather like a p but ended up over the centuries more easily confused with a y.
This is how the thorn appears in the 10th century colophon to the Lindisfarne Gospels.
This is from the same 12th century English document as the third example of edh given above.
This is an example from the same document as the fourth example of edh above.
This example is from a 14th century English poem written in a Gothic cursive book hand. As it has lost its ascender, it is beginning to look more like a y than a p.
This is from a 15th century English chancery fragment, showing how the top of the letter is now open.
And this is how it appears in a 15th century English chronicle written in a cursive book hand.
This is from a 15th century petition to the English chancery, but is not in a standard chancery hand, rather an untidy personal scrawl.
This is from a very neat and formal Gothic bastarda book hand of the 15th century.
The thorn went out of use as a special letter, but remained as a concept during the 15th and 16th centuries, replaced by the letter y, which was rendered exactly the same as the regular y in the script in question. This is the origin of the ye olde furphy.
The letter y used for th in a 15th century English chancery petition.
This example of y for th comes from one of the famous Paston letters, of the late 15th century.
A similar usage in a 16th century personal hand.
The th sound was not the only one which could not be accommodated by the standard Roman alphabet in the English language, and from here it can get a little confusing.
Histories of Individual Letters

History of Scripts
What is Paleography?

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