Reading Medieval Script: Three (not-so) Easy Steps!

By Jenny Weston

Medieval manuscripts are often beautiful to look at. With their strange letter-forms, their often gold-plated initials, and their aged parchment, they inevitably spark a sense of curiosity and awe.

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Arundel 490, fol. 81

They can also be complex and mystifying. Almost as soon as the eye has adjusted to the beauty of the page, it is met with a  jumbled terrain of mysterious letter shapes and unfamiliar symbols. The text is written in an abbreviated medieval script, and deciphering it may seem like a rather insurmountable hurdle for some modern readers.

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Mysterious letter shapes (Arundel 490)

Even the seasoned palaeographer who specializes in medieval script may hesitate for a moment when asked to read a passage from a manuscript—the task is definitely not without its challenges.

But fear not dear reader! By following these (not-so) quick and (not-so) easy steps, you too will find yourself blissfully flipping through a thousand-year-old book, soaking up ancient knowledge from the past.

Step One: Identify the Letters!

Although medieval letters may appear thick and pointy (and they often tend to blend together), for the most part, the basic shapes of the letters are the same as their modern counterparts. Of course there are always a few tricky variations to learn, but with a little concentrated effort, they can all be added to your personal repertoire of medieval script.

Perhaps one of the most noticeable differences is the way in which medieval scribes formed the long ‘s’. To our modern eye it looks more like the letter ‘f’ or ‘l’. In the photo below we see the word “silentio” (not “filentio” or “lilentio”).

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Despite the funny ‘s’, however, the rest of the letter shapes may appear slightly more familiar. The words “nocturno silentio” all of a sudden jump off the page!

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Step Two: Sort Out All those Pesky Abbreviations!

The next challenge is to decipher the abbreviations. By the twelfth century, most medieval scribes relied heavily on the use of abbreviations to limit the amount of space each word needed to take up on the page. Parchment was expensive and the more words crammed onto a single folio could mean a great deal of savings in production costs. Most words, therefore, only consist of a few key letters and an abbreviation mark of some kind, perhaps a small hovering circle, or a swirl at the end of the word:

Screen shot 2013-07-25 at 11.39.38 AM  “Et qd his mai est” (The full version: Et quod his maius est).

The idea was to provide ‘just enough’ information for the reader to recognize the word without adding too many redundant letters. Unfortunately, to our modern eyes these swirly dots and lines can prove to be a challenge in themselves—they are almost like a secret code that needs to be cracked.

For those who might need a little extra help in deciphering medieval abbreviations, there is an extremely useful guide (now available online) written by Adriano Cappelli called, “The Elements of Abbreviation in Medieval Latin Palaeography”. Lucky for us, Cappelli has mapped many of the most common forms of medieval abbreviations:

Cappelli, p. 13

Cappelli, “The Elements of Abbreviation”, p. 13

We can see some of these abbreviations ‘in action’ in the following example (the missing letters are in the square brackets):

Burney 326, fol. 2r“Oratio context[us] u[er]bo[rum] cu[m] sensu”.

Step Three: Master the Latin Language!

And the third and final step to reading medieval manuscript is to brush up on your Latin language skills. Since most medieval manuscripts (from Western Europe) were written in  Latin , it is relatively important to have at least some knowledge of the language. Regardless of the fact that it is no longer spoken (except in Dan Brown movies and the occasional Papal Mass), it is still possible to learn to read Latin, and most universities and even some community centres offer courses. If you don’t want to go as far as taking an official university Latin class, you could also rely on a few grammar lessons from the Life of Brian

And there we go! By following these three (not-so) simple steps, the text on the page will transform from a chaotic mess of strange and foreign letters to a beautiful poem, a chapter from a famous book, or a story relating adventurous tales of the past. Happy reading everyone!


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