Writing: Caroline minuscules, etc.

One of my more vivid pupils insisted on writing his Latin prose compositions in capital letters. He had two reasons for this:

  • The Romans used capitals, and lower case was unknown in the ancient world;
  • The capital letters would compel slow and careful reading.

Eric Gill said that the three qualities of a script are, in order, legibility, beauty and speed. Roman capitals had legibility and sometimes beauty. But speed was not necessary: they were read aloud.

The evolution of lower case letters happened over centuries, meeting the wish for quicker writing and the option of silent—and therefore faster—reading. For a summary of that evolution, see a diagram by John Tarr in the Images menu.

But separately, in different communities, scribes were forming their own styles, of varying appearance and quality and not necessarily legible in other parts of Europe. So when Charlemagne decided on a programme to educate all his subjects, it was clear that there must be a uniform script for the whole Frankish empire.

To direct that programme, he headhunted Alcuin from York to join his court at Aachen in 782: the two men became friends.

Caroline minuscules, as they are now called, were an improved form of the lettering that was already in use in the Benedictine houses of Europe—based on the half-uncial letters that the Irish have in modern times adopted as their logo.

These minuscules, seemingly approved by Alcuin, are the forerunner of our modern lower case letters, which are the delight of typeface designers, including the late Eric Gill, whose fonts include Perpetua, Joanna, Golden Cockerel, Bunyan, and of course Gill Sans Serif.

All this, and especially a brief CV of Alcuin that I gave, was of interest to the feisty Sixth Former mentioned above—but then he was and is a great man for detail.

Next post: Headaches and serifs.

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