Carolingian minuscule

From Academic Kids

Example from 10th century manuscript
Example from 10th century manuscript

Carolingian minuscule is a script developed as a writing standard in Europe so that the Roman alphabet could be easily recognized by the small literate class from one region to another. It was used in Charlemagne's empire between approximately 800 and 1200. Codices, pagan and Christian texts, and educational material were written in Carolingian minuscule throughout the Carolingian Renaissance. The script developed into Blackletter and became obsolete, though it forms the basis of more recent scripts.



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Page of text (folio 160v) from a Carolingian Gospel Book (British Library, MS Add. 11848), written in Carolingian minuscule.

The script ultimately developed from Roman Half Uncial and its cursive version, which had given rise to various Continental minuscule scripts, combined with features from the "Insular" scripts that were being used in Irish and English monasteries. Carolingian minuscule was created partly under the patronage of the Emperor Charlemagne (hence Carolingian). Charlemagne had a keen interest in learning, according to his biographer Einhard:

Temptabat et scribere tabulasque et codicellos ad hoc in lecto sub cervicalibus circumferre solebat, ut, cum vacuum tempus esset, manum litteris effigiendis adsuesceret, sed parum successit labor praeposterus ac sero inchoatus. ("He also tried to write, and used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; however, as he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill success.")

Charlemagne sent for the English scholar Alcuin of York to run his palace school and scriptorium at his capital, Aachen. The revolutionary character of the Carolingian reform can be over-emphasized; efforts at taming the crabbed Merovingian and Germanic hands had been under way before Alcuin arrived at Aachen, where he was master from 782 to 796, with a two-year break. The new minuscule was disseminated first from Aachen, and later from the influential scriptorium at Tours, France, where Alcuin "retired" as abbot.


Carolingian minuscule was clear and uniform, with rounded shapes, disciplined and above all, legible. Clear capital letters and spaces between words— norms we take for granted— became standard in Carolingian minuscule, which was one result of a campaign to achieve a culturally unifying standardization across the Carolingian Empire.

The value of a standardized hand is vivid to anyone who has tried to read a paragraph printed in Germanic blackletter typeface, a fact that was not lost on the Nazi government in their attempt to create an isolated, purely 'Germanic' information zone. Legibility may appear to be of secondary value, even a drawback, in some cultural contexts. Traditional charters for example continued to be written in a Merovingian "chancery hand" long after manuscripts of Scripture and classical literature were being produced in the minuscule hand. Documents written in a local language, in Gothic or Anglo-Saxon rather than Latin, tended to be expressed in traditional local handwritings.

Carolingian script generally has fewer ligatures than other contemporary scripts, although the ampersand, ae, rt, st, and ct ligatures are common. The letter d often appears in an uncial form, with an ascender slanting to the left, but the letter g is essentially the same as the modern minuscule letter, rather than the previously common uncial g. Ascenders usually become thicker near the top.

The early period of the script, during Charlemagne's reign in the late 8th century and early 9th, still has widely varying letter forms in different regions. The uncial form of the letter a is still used in manuscripts from this period. There is also use of punctuation such as the question mark, as in Beneventan script of the same period. The script flourished during the 9th century, when regional hands developed into an international standard, with less variation of letter forms. Modern forms such as S and V began to appear (as opposed to the "long s" and the letter u), and ascenders, after thickening at the top, were finished with a three-cornered wedge. The script began to decline slowly after the 9th century. In the 10th and 11th centuries, ligatures were rare, and ascenders began to slant to the right and were finished with a fork. The letter w also began to appear. By the 12th century, Carolingian letters became more angular and were written closer together, less legibly than in previous centuries; at the same time, the modern dotted i appeared.

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A page of the Freising manuscripts, 10th century Slovene text written in Carolingian minuscules


The new script spread through Western Europe most widely where Carolingian influence was strongest. It reached far afield: the 10th century Freising manuscripts, the first Roman-script record of any Slavic language, which contain the oldest Slovene language are written in Carolingian minuscule. In Switzerland, Carolingian was used in the Rhaetian and Alemannic minuscule types. Manuscripts written in Rhaetian minuscule tend to have slender letters, resembling Insular script, with the letters a and t, and ligatures such as ri, showing similar to Visigothic and Beneventan. Alemannic minuscule, used for a short time in the early 9th century, is usually larger and broader, very vertical compared to the slanting Rhaetian type. In Austria, Salzburg was the major centre of Carolingian script, while Fulda, Mainz, and Wurzburg were the major centres in Germany. German minuscule tends to be oval-shaped, very slender, and slants to the right. It has uncial features as well, such as the ascender of the letter d slanting to the left, and vertical initial strokes of m and n.

In northern Italy, the monastery at Bobbio used Carolingian minuscule beginning in the 9th century. Outside the sphere of influence of Charlemagne and his successors, however, the new legible hand was resisted by the Roman Curia; nevertheless the Romanesca type was developed in Rome after the 10th century. The script was not taken up in England and Ireland until ecclesiastic reforms in the middle of the tenth century; in Spain a traditionalist Visigothic hand survived; and in southern Italy a 'Beneventan minuscule' survived in the lands of the Lombard Duchy of Benevento through the thirteenth century, although Romanesca eventually also appeared in southern Italy.

Role in cultural transmission

Scholars during the Carolingian renaissance sought out and copied in the new legible standardized hand many Roman texts that had been wholly forgotten. Most of our knowledge of classical literature now derives from copies made in the scriptoria of Charlemagne. There are over 7000 manuscripts written in Carolingian script surviving from the 8th and 9th centuries alone.

Though the Carolingian minuscule was superseded by Gothic hands, it later seemed so thoroughly 'classic' to the humanists of the early Renaissance that they took these Carolingian manuscripts to be true Roman ones and modelled their Renaissance hand on the Carolingian one, and thus it passed to the 15th century printers of books, like Aldus Manutius of Venice. In this way it is the basis of our modern typefaces. Indeed 'Carolingian minuscule' is a style of typographic font, which approximates this historical hand, eliminating the nuances of size of capitals, long descenders, etc..

See also

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