English Vernacular Minuscule
[The text here is adapted from the Introduction to P.A. Stokes, English Vernacular Minuscule (Cambridge, 2014),pp. 7–8 and 10–12.]
A Note on Terminology
‘English Vernacular minuscule’ is the name given here to the script written in England from about the 990s until after the Norman Conquest. It is sometimes referred to as ‘Anglo-Saxon Round minuscule’, but this name is inaccurate, partly because it continued to be written after the so-called ‘Anglo-Saxon period’, and also because in its earlier stages it was anything but round (see, for example, the handwriting in the cartulary produced at Worcester catheral in the first quarter of the century here). It came after Anglo-Saxon Square minuscule, which was written during the tenth century, and is also distinct from Caroline minuscule which was used to write Latin (as opposed to Old English, the vernacular language of the Anglo-Saxons). These differences are most evident in allographs of the letter a: compare Square a, the ‘insular’ form of English Vernacular minuscule a, and Caroline a.
Another problematic term is ‘Insular’. English Vernacular minuscule of the eleventh century is sometimes referred to as ‘Insular’, but this is incorrect. The Insular script system is that defined by Julian Brown, namely the system of five scripts practised certainly in England and Ireland and possibly in the rest of Britain until the mid-ninth century. Referring to script produced in England after this as ‘Insular’ is incorrect, because scribal practices in England diverged significantly after this date and so there was no consistent scribal practice across the Insular world. ‘Insular minuscule’ is also to be avoided, for the reasons already discussed when applied to writing after the mid-ninth century, and because Insular scribes before this wrote no fewer than four distinct minuscule scripts. However, although the Insular system of scripts did not last beyond this, the distinctive ‘Insular’ letter-forms (or their clear descendants) are found as late as the twelfth century in England and Wales, and for many centuries thereafter in Ireland, and so to refer to these as Insular letter-forms is useful and consistent with observed phenomena.
The roots of English Vernacular minuscule lie in script practised very much earlier. The Insular system of script, as defined and characterised by Julian Brown, was one demonstrably practised in Ireland and England, probably also in Wales and perhaps Scotland; at least in Brown's conception of it, it lasted until the Viking incursions of the mid-ninth century. At this time Anglo-Saxon scribal practices seem to have collapsed: a dramatic change has been observed in the quality of both the script and the Latinity of charters from about the 850s, and this correlates closely with claims attributed to King Alfred that education had largely ceased due to the extreme pressures of the time. Although the details have been argued, it does seem that the stability and reforms introduced by Alfred towards the end of the ninth century brought with it a gradual improvement in standards of writing, resulting ultimately in the distinctive Square minuscule script which characterises Anglo-Saxon charter and book production of much of the tenth century (and is distinctive of the so-called Late Celtic minuscule practised in Ireland and Wales). Although Brown's Insular script system fell out of use from about the mid-ninth century, its distinctive letter-forms are still found in later scripts, both from England but also from Ireland and, soon after, Wales and Scotland; these are distinctive insofar as they are clearly and consistently different from the same letters in Caroline minuscule which, by this date, was being practised across much of the rest of Europe.
During the tenth century Anglo-Saxon Square minuscule was practised throughout England, initially with some variation but with increasing uniformity during Æthelstan's reign (924–939), and with some variations after that until Edgar became king of all England in 959. His reign saw the Benedictine reforms: Dunstan, appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 960, Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester from 963, and Oswald, bishop of Worcester from 962 and archbishop of York from 971, were the three key people who brought Anglo-Saxon monastic practices closer in line with that of continental centres. These reforms were supported strongly by King Edgar, and both the documentary and material evidence shows that this was a period of significant growth of monasteries and scriptoria, with numerous lavish manuscripts being produced as a result. Changes also took place in liturgy, personnel, and book production, specifically with new practices in manuscript decoration, in the arrangement of parchment, and, most importantly for this discussion, the introduction of Caroline minuscule.
Perhaps surprisingly, this introduction of Caroline minuscule did not mean the end of Square minuscule. Instead, at least some scribes seem to have learned both, using Caroline minuscule to write texts in Latin and Square minuscule for texts in Old English. In the best cases, scribes changed their script word by word for bilingual texts such as Ælfric's Grammar, although such high standards were not often maintained in practice. However, probably inevitably, the new script did bring changes to the old one. Certainly, some scribes wrote Square minuscule with very heavy influence from Caroline script, particularly regarding proportions and sometimes also letterforms. As the name suggests, Square minuscule is characterised (among other things) by its square proportions – ascenders and descenders are relatively short and letters relatively wide – but some examples of writing in the vernacular include some Caroline letter-forms and also show much taller and narrower proportions. It was these changes that led to the development of English Vernacular minuscule, the script on which the DigiPal focuses.