Calligraphy and Manuscript Illumination

Throughout the Middle Ages all documents, books, charters, etc., were handwritten. Called "manuscripts" - from the Latin words for hand (manu) writing (script) - they were produced before printing ushered in the European Renaissance. This domain of writing and books was in the hands of the literate nobility, merchant upper class and the church. Most books were made by monks and nuns in a monastic scriptorium, the room(s) reserved for producing books.

Powerful nobility displayed their wealth through ownership and production of sumptuous manuscripts. To produce a single book was costly. It required the original text or a loaned copy of another book and several highly skilled craftspeople: a parchementer to make the parchment from the animal skin, a scribe to do the calligraphy (from the Greek beautiful [Kalli] wiring [graphia]), an illuminator to decorate the book and a bookbinder to sew the individual pages into a book format and make the leather binding. The most wealthy and powerful also gave beautifully calligraphed and illuminated (decorated using real gold leaf and expensive, precious colors) documents as gifts. The Tres Riches Heures of Jean Duc Du Berry and The Book of Kells are two famous examples of manuscripts that have survived to this day.

The M.S.R. artisans continue these grand artistic traditions through the creation of Kingdom documents. Instead of making books of hours, bibles, romances and charters; M.S.R. artisans create shire, county, baronial and guild charters, Kingdom and Shire greatbooks, awards of honor, sovereignÕs oaths, etc. All are suitably calligraphed, illuminated and emblazoned. Awards are presented to the deserving M.S.R. members by the sovereign in court and are shown for all to admire. While medieval documents are the collaborative work of several artisans, M.S.R. documents are usually the work of single artisans. But, M.S.R. documents are still based on actual medieval documents.

There is an endless variety of calligraphic and corresponding illumination styles. This stems from the fact that calligraphy was as varied as the different cultures and eras from whence it came. What follows is a brief introduction to several European calligraphic styles. This listing, in chronological order, is by no means complete or comprehensive.

Roman Majuscles (1st - 2nd c)
These majestic capitals are the basis of our modern alphabet. Developed as carved lettering for use in Roman monuments, they are easily read from a distance. In medieval thinking, to use these grand letters in a document evoked the ultimate power and far reaching authority of the fallen Roman Empire and aligned the document presenter with this power. The perfect example of these carved letters (113 AD) appears on the inscription at the base of the Trojan Column at the Roman Forum.

Square Capitals (1st - 4th c)
These are the pen-made variations of the Roman majuscules written in ancient Roman texts. These were also adopted by medieval scribes.

Rustics (4th - 5th c)
Originally brush made letters, these letters were the style that ancient Roman graffiti artists used. The name "Rustics" is derogatory meaning barbarian and uncivilized. Later rustic majuscules were used for titles only in medieval manuscripts, especially when used with carolingian or later humanist calligraphy. After the fall of the Roman Empire and before the rise of the Holy Roman Empire headed by Charlemagne, came a time of isolationism. One of the results in these Dark Ages is a rise in highly differentiated regional calligraphy styles. These are a few:
Merovingian (7th - 8th c) France
Visigothic (9th - 10th c) Spain
Benevetan (9th - 10th c) Italy

Uncial and Half Uncial (5th - 12th c)
First developed as Roman styles at the time of the Roman occupation of the British Isles, these Irish letters are the first truly medieval styles. Used by Irish missionary monks that spread Christianity across northern Europe, their characteristic round shapes influenced many later calligraphy styles. The typical decorative motifs used with these styles were intricate knotwork patterns with interlaced vines or animals (see Book of Kells or Lindisfarne Gospels). Uncial lettering was sometimes done as gold lettering on top of purple or burgundy dyed parchment.

Carolingian (8th - 12th c)
Charlemagne was responsible for the development of this lettering style. In his desire to re-unify the Roman Empire as the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne realized the need for a single unified lettering style for all of Europe. He appointed Alcuin of York to this arduous task - first to travel and study all the existing lettering in Europe and second to choose and develop the one that is most easily learned. Carolingian is the revolutionary result. It is the first truly minuscule style. It requires capital letters. Prior to this, capital letters were the same lettering style made larger. As for decoration, in earlier manuscripts the usual was simple Italian white vine. Later, carolingian perfectly fit the needs of Spanish manuscripts with Moorish geometric motifs.

Black Letter (12th - 15th c)
Evolved from carolingian, the letters were compressed, elongated and by the 12th century, angularized. The result is reminiscent of the dramatic gothic architecture of the same period. Though sometimes called gothic, this derogatory term was used by renaissance scholars to belittle this medieval style. Typical decoration includes bar borders with playful marginalia, distinctive diaper patterns on simple ivy vines.

Rotunda (12th - 15th c)
Developed concurrently with black letter, rotunda was southern European (Spain and Italy) while black letter was mostly northern. Rotunda letters were more compressed than carolingian while retaining generous rounded arches. Many choir books are written in rotunda. Decorative border patterns include inhabited and uninhabited voluptuous acanthus vines.

Humanist (15th c)
Named after the humanistic scholars in 1400 Florence, this hand was a backlash against the stiff, compressed, less-readable black letter. Humanist was a rediscovery and reinterpretation of carolingian. These scholars having seen Virgil and others written in carolingian assumed that carolingian was the lettering style of the ancient Romans. Being antiquarians, these scholars preferred their books to be decorated with copies of ancient Roman objects, carvings and stunningly elaborate interlaced Italian white vine.

Italic (15th - 16th c)
Developed concurrently with humanist, italic was used by the Papal Chancery for briefs and Papal Bulls. Having many cursive characteristics, italic was designed to be written quickly. Our modern hand writing is based on a lettering style derived from italic. Of note: "La Operina," the first printed writing manual, gives ArrighiÕs instructions for writing italic calligraphy. The decorative motifs for italic are the same as for humanist.

Black Letter Cursive/Batarde (15th - 16th c)
These lettering styles are unique variations of a merging of the cursive characteristics of italic and the angular, compressed characteristics of black letter. Usually called batarde, this is a polite way of calling them "bastard" lettering styles. The decorative motifs are also the same as for humanist.

To begin to learn calligraphy and manuscript illumination is easy. It requires few materials and a sincere desire to learn. Mastery takes years, but this road is taken step by step. The first step is to get a calligraphy pen and a good instruction book or contact a member of the Order of Quill and ask for guidance.