Cursive Language and Medieval Manuscripts

Cuneform script (from the Latin word cuneus meaning ‘wedge’), is where writing as we know it today evolved from pictographs carved into clay tablets, or ‘wedged’ in using mediocre tools, as civilisations swiftly grew and spread.  As pictographs were largely detailed they therefore took a while to draw, which is not very practical. With an ever-growing population and the mingling of cultures, new knowledge emerged and so other than basic script for trading systems more advanced words for communication needed a symbol to be purposefully designed.

So by 3000 B.C, script (handwriting) became easier to understand and faster to write. As a true alphabet began to be taught along with phonics, which was typically used (also today) to help teach people how to read by using sounds that relate to their related symbol.

People no longer needed to learn the definition of a pictograph now with the ability to write a rebus (text alongside an image) to read more coherently. As spoken language changed and adapted to an ever changing culture, so did written (this has been the case throughout written history).

Cursive Language is handwritten, joined up letters that we are taught to use from an early age. Handwriting comes naturally as we write everyday (unless you’ve forgotten how to write a word then you’ll probably write letter by letter). Everyone has that “unique” writing style, some arguably more legit able than others. Hieroglyphics (especially hieratic) is the origins of all western written language (like the Latin alphabet we see in our language).  Greek and Roman letters are the foundations of the alphabet and modern languages. Accents and ligatures (Two characters joined together) were designed (and still used today in some modern languages) to express the sound of the word to help with reading.

A great example of Ancient Egyptian cursive script is the Edwin Smith Papyrus (1600 B.C). Discovered by Edwin Smith (1862), the papyrus is written in hieratic script (cursive Egyptian hieroglyphics) and is the oldest known surviving script of medical practices from that era.

The Edwin Smith Papyrus shows the earliest record of medical techniques

This particular piece of script gives us an insight to how we historically applied medicine and what treatments were available. As disease would have been common, ancient civilisations needed to conjure up cures from what they understood about the human anatomy, magic and worship. Ancient Egypt was a land with a plentiful supply of resources from agriculture to precious metals so language had evolved to adapt to the changing culture. Archaeologists find hieroglyphics important as they tell how this once powerful civilisation ran and about its people, and fortunately Ancient Egypt documented quite a lot of their findings and stories(thanks to the discovery of the Rosetta stone, some translations of this now dead-language can be estimated).

Paper was needed for cursive language as carving into clay would not be so beneficial for a faster way of writing. Papyrus is reeds from the river Nile which is harvested and pressed together to create an early form of paper: “Papyrus was the most widely used writing support in the ancient world […] until 1057, papyrus was replaced by locally produced parchment in most of Western Europe when the Roman Empire collapsed and papyrus became impossible to import”(p3, “Introduction to Manuscript Studies”) as language spread across different societies writing tools and languages changed over hundreds of years. Even though papyrus was no longer an option for Western Europe, this was not a problem: “every conceivable surface has been used to record the written word, including clay, slate, pottery shards, linen cloth, bark, palm leaves, wood, metal, stone, animal skins, wax and paper”(Introduction to Manuscript, p3), early manuscript parchments were made from specially prepared animal skins of livestock. The process was slow and care was taken to make sure no discolouration or tears occurred, whereas papyrus was a more straight-forward process.

As the Roman empire collapsed around 476 A.D, Europe plunged into ‘The Dark Ages’: “The Roman Empire was of enormous dimensions extending from the Atlantic to the River Euphrates, and from Britain to the Sahara Desert”(The Fall of the Roman Empire) Roman territory was far too large and the army was unsuccessful and collapsed. As law and order crumbled, disease and conflict would have been a large problem and typical lifespans shortened. Sources of text were far more scarce, as written language was already restricted to important members of society: “advanced literacy was confined to churchmen for 500 years”( this continued over the Middle Ages as Monks created scripts. With writing tools evolving into feathered ink and quills, writing was easier however, every book created was hand written. This lead to a large variety in medieval manuscripts, as changes would have been made, as well as several mistakes: “every manuscript is unique”(Introduction to Manuscript Studies, p129) because each Monk’s handwriting would differ caused by the script’s ductus (the speed and quality of the execution of the way the letters were formed) some manuscripts may have been difficult to read.

Scripts come in several different styles, to keep cursive language easy to read and different styles were also fashionable at different periods.  Many medieval books have been preserved however many were also destroyed: “Developments in handwriting, for example, could lead to the destruction of entire manuscripts” (Introduction to Manuscript Studies, p67) scribes kept books up-to-date by burning old editions, or removing their pages(even though books suffered from natural attacks from animals and decay, religious groups would have also torn opposing or aged books apart).Thankfully many medieval books have survived and this helps give historians an insight to the medieval culture.

Carolingian miniscule(8th century), a script in which letters were different sizes to each other (Ascenders and Descenders) introduced spaces between words and was designed to make reading easier and faster to comprehend(Roman alphabet was all capitals). Most scripts are the result of the Carolingian miniscule and are still used today, including the Gothic script (12th Century) which is seen today in certificates , diplomas and the New York Times newspaper. Gothic Script does not have conjoined letters and some of the text looks similar(a and d, a and v and u and v) and so reading Gothic script can sometimes be difficult to read.

Bâtarde script (15th Century)  was much more commonly seen in manuscripts during the later medieval period as it had a formal appearance, but was more legible.

Example of Gothic Script, seen in the New York Times logo

Of course, the process of books created by hand would have slow and ultimately made the access to knowledge precious and not available to everyone.



Charlesworth (1968) Roman Empire. Oxford University Press(p7)

Clemens, Raymond  and  Graham, Timothy (2007) Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Cornell University Press (p3, 67, 129)

Grant, Michael  (1976) “The Fall of the Roman Empire” A Reappraisal by (p23)


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