Medieval Calligraphy

Calligraphy is the art of creating beautiful symbols by hand. Medieval calligraphy was said to have been one of the most expensive and alluring methods in ornamenting a written word during the Middle Ages.

Medieval Calligraphy

Medieval Calligraphy

It was even considered to be art and can be traced back to the 1st century when the Romans first adapted Greek writing and their alphabet.

The Romans used sharpened quills with broad nibs in creating their first letters and this art flourished up until the 15th century.

Medieval Calligraphy History

Medieval calligraphy is also known as Western calligraphy was mainly characterized by the use of Latin Script.

The Latin alphabet is said to have appeared in 600 BC in Rome, where it was used on stone writings and some painted walls.

Medieval calligraphy in Europe evolved and developed other calligraphic styles used during the first and second centuries.

Later on, these styles of writing were adopted and adapted by monks in monasteries and those in the church. One of the writing styles developed was uncial lettering which was widely used for copying text and scriptures from the Bible.

These calligraphic traditions were preserved by the Romans even after the Dark Ages.

Uncial Lettering

Uncial Lettering

Medieval calligraphy letters and fonts

Throughout the Medieval Era, several calligraphic styles had been adapted and they served various purposes. However, medieval calligraphy was more than just decorated writing or ornamented letters and styles.

True calligraphers paid particular attention to their work, the history of writing, and their highly inventive and rich heritage.

Maimesbury Bible Medieval Calligraphy

Medieval calligraphy letters had several important elements on them. Most of these letter, regardless of style, have symbol, integrity, harmony and ancestry.

These contribute to the beauty and styling of the letters. Calligraphic letters were dressed in patterns, pictures, and colors.

Medieval calligraphy was made comparable to the bones and muscles of the human body that is beautiful in themselves.

Western Caligraphy Book of Columba

Book of Columba *Illuminated Manuscript Masterwork of Western Calligraphy

Calligraphy has brought about most of the modern font faces and font types. The fonts and styling that were being used in modern writing originated from these and were designed by true calligraphers during the medieval era.

Important Medieval Calligraphy Writing Styles

Square Capitals is a calligraphy style that can be traced back to the early Roman Empire and was used until around the 6th century.

This type of script was characterized by distinct letters that were made of straight lines as well as several abbreviations indicated by dots between the words.

Square Capitals Calligraphy

Square Capitals Calligraphy style can be traced back to the early Roman Empire

Roman Rustic Capitals are robust and dynamic in design. They are good for legal documents such as titles, announcements, and other documents that require formal styling. It is the alternative to square capitals which were grand and stone-chiseled.


Uncial calligraphy takes a much-rounded form which was derived from the old Greek alphabet. According to historians, the uncial style of writing was commonly associated with the early Christian Church and was used in handwritten books. It was also written to look impressive and detailed therefore making it more of a calligraphy alphabet.

Half Uncial have minuscule letters with occasional majuscule forms. This type of medieval calligraphy was originally developed during the 4th century until the 8th century and was one of the primary styles of writing during the Late Roman Empire. One distinctive characteristic of this alphabet is that the letter “s" looks like a letter “r" in standard letter form. Meanwhile, the actual letter “r" has a hook instead of a curved top.

Old Roman Cursive is another calligraphy style used during the 1st century and was adapted until the mid-fourth century. Old Roman cursive is considered to document handwriting and was widely used among quickly written business and legal documents during the middle ages.

Old Roman Cursive Calligraphy

Old Roman Cursive Calligraphy

New Roman Cursive is rather an evolved version of the Old Roman Cursive calligraphy. It was used around the fourth century. The writing style was developed when the need for informally written business documents increased during that time. The New Roman Cursive showed alternatives of the individual letters, especially in form for minimalist execution. Eventually, it evolved into minuscule book hands during the 7th and 8th centuries.

Insular Minuscule is considered a pre-Carolingian script. One of the examples of this is the old Italian book hand which started in the 7th century. It was described as a horrible old script that showed various difficulties in classification and was adversely hard to read. Other pre-Carolingian scripts included late English document hand, Merovingian minuscule, and insular half-uncial.

 Insular Minuscule Calligraphy

Insular Minuscule Calligraphy

Carolingian Minuscule was developed to establish a calligraphic standards in Europe. It made the Latin Alphabet easier to read across the various regions. However, it eventually developed into black letters until it became obsolete.

Gothic writing is another form of medieval calligraphy. The letters in Gothic calligraphy are mostly rectangular and it has a block-like shape. This kind of writing has been one of the best choices among most writing styles for centuries, especially in book production in medieval Europe.

Medieval illuminated manuscripts

Gothic writing is another form of medieval calligraphy

Humanist Minuscule is a script style that was invented in Italy and was used among the secular sectors in the area during the early 15th century. This style of handwriting was derived from the Carolingian Minuscule handwriting style and was widely adapted during the Renaissance era.

Roundhand shows more of the modern calligraphy style. This is very common in twentieth-century writing as it was originally derived from Italian Renaissance scripts. The primary virtue behind this writing style was simplicity. Apparently, the scholars had grown tired of reading text written in long, tiny, cramped-up Gothic style.

Italic is another calligraphic writing style that is adapted to this date. This is considered one of the most legible calligraphy styles as letters are written without being fussy. For generations, it has been taught as a great foundation for cursive writing.

The copperplate style of writing is more of a modern type of calligraphy than a medieval one as this was widely adapted during the 18th and 19th centuries for copperplate engravings. Nevertheless, this is a calligraphy style that has a great medieval influence on it. It has a bit of an old-fashioned flavor to it that makes it more elegant.

Medieval Calligraphy Methods

Medieval calligraphy definitely adds decorative effect to the manuscript as elegance and labor add not just aesthetic but monetary and even social value to the document.

The most common method of writing calligraphy was with the use of a quill. Some quills used for medieval calligraphy had broad nibs. In most cases, the shape and size, sometimes the hair type, of the brush may affect the appearance of the script. However, the method by which the pen is held could make a lot of difference.

The order and direction in which a stroke is executed are called ductus. This governs the technical aspect of the production of the script. Nevertheless, several factors such as the ink and water ratio, pressure, direction, and inclination of the brush can greatly affect and influence the final shapes of the letters.

Calligraphers Training – Guilds

Calligraphers and paleographers who studied calligraphy were the ones who created the ductus to answer and establish historical inquiries that can help other calligraphers.

They believed that no matter how carefully the shapes of the letters were copied if the ductus were incorrect, the script would appear to be very different.

Thus, calligraphers as well as scribes training to transcribe documents or undertake dictation needed to learn both visual skills needed for letter recognition and reproduction and sequential motor skills.

A Medieval Scribe at Work

Medieval Scribes recorded history and designed illuminated manuscripts

Medieval Calligrapher’s Status

Medieval calligrapher’s work is tediously artistic. Calligraphy was primarily designed for legal documents during the Middle Ages. Therefore, legibility was of utmost importance.

However, in the early part of the period, the use of calligraphy apparently did not enhance the appearance of legal manuscripts.

Illuminated Manuscripts Medieval Scribe Eadwine at work psalter christ church canterbury

Illuminated Manuscripts Medieval Scribe Eadwine at work psalter christ church canterbury

This brought about the development of various calligraphy styles, which were aimed at improving the appearance of the writing significantly. The finest works showcasing elegant and legible calligraphy styles were that of the early church, which included works used for rituals.

Medieval Calligraphy Summary

The invention of printers in the 15th century (Gutenberg press) brought about the decline of medieval calligraphy.

However, it was reborn in the 19th century as influenced by aesthetics and several other philosophies of arts and craftsmanship. To this date, calligraphy is still considered a significant part of the art of writing.

Gutenberg press

Gutenberg press