History of Calligraphy

The Development of Calligraphy

When you look round a bookshop today, and note the many thousands of new books available to buy every year, it does seem amazing that for hundreds of years all the books produced, in fact all the world’s knowledge of the time, was painstakingly written down by hand using ink and a pen which had first of all to be made and then recut quite frequently.

The books of the Old and New Testament of the Bible, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, the romances of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere and the knights of the Round Table, and all the Greek and Latin texts came down to us through the ages this way.

It was no doubt in Roman times when the letters used by the Phoenicians and then the Greeks reached the height of beauty and proportion. Those on Trajan’s Column opposite the Forum in Rome, Italy, are strikingly beautiful. But similarly exquisite letters can be seen on the remains of ancient Roman monuments throughout Europe, including the UK.
Cutting letters in stone, though, is painstakingly slow, and was not the way in which the Romans wrote their shopping lists or shared letters containing gossip with their friends. Using the same letter-forms as those on monuments, but adapting them to the task in hand, Romans used a metal stylus to scratch letters into wax tablets, or even wrote using a pen with ink on bark, as at Vindolanda, by Hadrian’s Wall, on the border between Scotland and England. Here, letters about the size of a postcard, record, amongst other things, an order for more beer from a soldier, a request from a soldier for clean socks and underpants, and an invitation to a birthday party.

This writing on bark, though, is very difficult to read, as the letters are not well-formed and seem to merge into one another.

To make important books, the letter-forms had to be grand and readable. Old and New Roman Cursive lettering was not grand and is not that easy to read, so harking back to the majesty of those letters in stone, a writing style developed which is called Uncial. These letters, made with a pen which has a straight-cut edge (broad-edge pen nib) are round and wide, taking up a great deal of space, and with decided thick’s and thins to the letters, made by the shape of the pen nib. But the space taken up by this style was not a problem when the book was for the glory of God and for an important church.

It was a lettering style which was slightly adapted by the early English. At the important monastery at Lindisfarne (now Holy island) off Northumbria in northern England, the abbot Eadfrith, ‘for the glory of God and St Cuthbert and all the saints’, created perhaps England’s greatest treasure – the Lindisfarne Gospels, now safely housed in the British Library in London. It truly was his work for God, opus dei, as his strong letter-forms of Half-Uncial hold their own against the intricate interlace patterns in delicate colour combinations. Many of the patterns contain convoluted birds and animals, including, on the opening page of St Luke – the incipit (the beginning) page – the monastery cat, with nine birds twisting and twirling in its tummy!

Another style of writing was used a little later in charters or for less important manuscripts such as letters, and this is called Insular Minuscule, which, in its earlier forms, looks pointed and spiky. It was this style of writing which was used, in the ninth century, to ‘gloss’ biblical texts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, and also the Vespasian Psalter. In fact the Vespasian Psalter, a book of Psalms has the earliest extant gloss into the vernacular language. The style was also used as a book hand, particularly when it became squarer in form.

Meanwhile, over on the continent, letter-forms were changing during the reign of the Emperor Charlemagne. He was a man in a hurry, and head-hunted an Englishman, Alcuin, from York, to revitalise the court school at Aachen. Charlemagne loved books, even though he could not write himself, according to his biographer. He often gave books as presents to his followers who had done well and he wanted a writing style which was easy to read and not too difficult to write; he also encouraged the use of a minuscule script. A minuscule script is not necessarily tiny (note it is minu- not mini-, that is minus [less than], not small!), but it does have similar characteristics to those we would recognise in our handwriting today. So the parts of the letter that go up, the ascenders, on letters b,d,f,h, etc extend beyond the body of the letters such as o, a, e, i, and the parts that go down, the descenders, on letters g, p, q also extend downwards beyond the body of the letters. Compare these letters with a majuscule style such as Roman Capitals, where the letters are contained between upper and lower horizontal lines.

Many great Bibles, using this Caroline Minuscule writing style, were produced at the scriptorium of the abbey of St Martin, in Tours, France, such as the Grandval-Moutiers Bible, and it was not long before the writing crossed the Channel to England. Here the forward slanting letter-forms were made more upright, the long ascenders and descenders shortened and the letters made to look more grand. They were used to particularly good effect in the Ramsey Psalter, such that this was the writing style identified by Edward Johnston, the father of modern calligraphy, in the first half of the twentieth century, as being a good place to start learning calligraphy. He called this style the Foundational Hand (it is also known as Round Hand, or English Caroline Minuscule).

By the eleventh century, changes were taking place and these round, grand letter-forms were getting compressed to allow for more words on a line. Eadui Basan, scribe and artist, working at the time used this English Caroline Minuscule Compressed style to great effect in books like the Arundel Psalter and the Grimbald Gospels.
But this was on the way to a writing style which most people recognise. Passing through Proto-Gothic as a stage, full Gothic writing developed in the late twelfth- and thirteenth-centuries. This heavy and rigid style of Gothic Black Letter was the writing in many grand books such as the Sherborne Missal, the Metz Pontifical and the Bedford Hours. Most round parts of letters are written as straight strokes, and it is difficult to decipher the individual letters, certainly in words like minimum, unless clues are added, such as the dots over the letters i.

Often these books contained gloriously coloured images with real pure gold. Underneath the gold was a cushion of gesso, which raised the shiny leaf from the surface and made it look as if it had been enamelled. The writing is so strong, though, that it complements the rich colours made from precious pigments such as lapis lazuli and cinnabar.

At this point there were also writing styles which were used for letters, records and charters, and alongside the rigid style of Gothic Black Letter ran Gothic Cursive or Secretary Hand, which could be elevated in elegance and precision of form to be used in books, in which case it was called Bâtarde.

The Humanists in Italy in Renaissance times rejected the rigidity and conformity of Gothic and were looking for letter-forms which related more to the human. Surrounded as they were by the inscriptions on the remains of monuments to the glories of Rome, they homed in on Roman Capitals for majuscules. However, they did not go as far back as Old and New Roman Cursive for the minuscule letter-forms, but settled on those of Charlemagne, thinking at first, probably, that these were in fact Roman.

A delightfully light form of Caroline Minuscule was transformed into Humanistic Minuscule at this time, and later, a cursive form was developed, which we know better as Italic.

This was the form used by engravers in copper, and they and writing masters of the time developed the Copperplate style of writing which uses a pointed nib. It was a style taught in schools to those who were destined to be clerks in the British Empire, and they took this writing style throughout the world in the nineteenth century.

William Morris, towards the end of that century, studied mediæval manuscripts and realised that the letter-forms in the Middle Ages were not made with a pointed pen, scratching out the outlines of letter-shapes and filling them in, but by a pen with a broad edge. His studies were taken forward by Edward Johnston, and we have the beginning of the revival of one of the most satisfying art forms today.

Of course, calligraphy and lettering did not stop with William Morris and Edward Johnston. Many people learn calligraphy as a creative craft to use on greetings cards, and for writing out poems and prose. A few develop their skills and artistic flair such that they are professional scribes and lettering artists. If you want to know more about how you can learn and improve calligraphy, visit the website of the Calligraphy and Lettering Arts Society

There is also a permanent collection of the best of contemporary calligraphy at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Look out for the exhibition which will be arranged in the future.

© 2008 texts and illustrations, Patricia Lovett 

Illustrations and letter-forms taken from: Patricia Lovett, Teach Yourself Calligraphy, Hodder and Stoughton, 2003, London. Patricia Lovett, The British Library Companion to Calligraphy, Illumination and Heraldry, The British Library, 2000, London. Michelle Brown and Patricia Lovett, The Historical Source Book for Scribes, The British Library, 1998, London.