Capless a’s and a Fringe Ligature: The Courtship of Medieval Script

By Ramona Venema

Ramona is a research master in ‘Classical, Medieval Renaissance Studies’ at the University of Groningen. She is currently working as an intern for the ‘Turning Over a New Leaf Project’. 

After completing a course in the fundamentals of codicology I was hooked: I had to do an internship that involved the study of medieval books. The smelliness of parchment couldn’t keep me away from the manuscripts. When I attended a lecture given by Dr. Erik Kwakkel, I decided to send an e-mail asking whether there was a place for an intern in his Turning Over a New Leaf project at the University of Leiden. I received a swift reply and a couple of months (and a pile of paperwork) later here I am.

Some of you might remember Erik Kwakkel’s earlier blogpost about how medieval letters can ‘kiss’ and ‘bite’ — in the twelfth century it became increasingly common for scribes to fuse certain letterforms together, giving the impression that they were ‘kissing’ (just touching slightly) and then ‘biting’ (almost fully joined together). Essentially, my internship project analyzes and records this ‘courtship’ of letterforms that took place during the eleventh century, while also keeping my eye out for developments and changes in other script features.

You might be wondering how my current project relates to the Turning Over a New Leaf project as a whole. Well, the data that Erik Kwakkel has collected thus far, has focused primarily on manuscripts produced between the years 1075 and 1225. He has shown that some early examples of ‘Gothic’ script features (including letter fusion) occur in approximately 30% of the manuscripts produced around the year 1075. This suggests that certain features that we now call ‘pre-Gothic’ or ‘Gothic’ may have been introduced even earlier than 1075. The question is where and when they were introduced for the first time. My task is to document examples of these script features in manuscripts of the eleventh century.

Two examples  of  a ct-ligature, the c and t are connected overhead – Fragment from Bibl. Nat. de France Lat. 3786 fol. 259; image from Catalogue des Manuscrits Datés

Two examples of a ct-ligature, the c and t are connected overhead (Fragment from Bibl. Nat. de France Lat. 3786 fol. 259; image from Catalogue des Manuscrits Datés)

My internship is (at the time of writing this) still in its infancy. Yes folks, that means that I spend most days staring at my computer screen, scanning 11th-century manuscript images, and entering their script features into a database. Admittedly at times it can be a monotonous task, but it also has its fun moments. I have now immersed myself so heavily in 11th-century script, that I sometimes find myself looking into the mirror early in the morning and thinking “Hey, that could be a ct-ligature!” and then quickly realizing that it’s just a curl in my fringe that I’m really looking at.

Or that merry moment when I found what I thought was a really obscure and unusual script with crazy ‘capless’ ‘a’s and huge ‘e’s. (I immediately got all geeky and excited—something strange was happening in this script). But then moments later Erik Kwakkel stopped by and said (after about 2 seconds of looking at it): ‘Oh, that’s visigothic script!’ (Read: You can’t include the manuscript in the database). Bummer! 

Visigothic: a fun transcribing exercise. Can you spot the capless a’s and the enormous e’s?  (Fragment from Bibl. Nat. de France – Nouv. Acq. Lat. 2169, fol. 26; image from Catalogue des Manuscrits Datés)

Visigothic: a fun transcribing exercise. Can you spot the capless a’s and the enormous e’s?
(Fragment from Bibl. Nat. de France – Nouv. Acq. Lat. 2169, fol. 26; image from Catalogue des Manuscrits Datés)

What I find satisfying about this type of (quantitative) research is that the numbers tell the tale. Even though I am not exactly a mathematical genius (far from it) I can appreciate that statistics (when applied to script) are able to give us the tools to date a manuscript more specifically, rather than going on gut-feeling (or the ‘Zap’ moment). It makes the research that is conducted more of an exact process, which is very satisfying. Needless to say, I am very content with my internship, and I am curious to see whether all my ‘staring at computer screens’ will yield some exciting results in the weeks to come.

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