Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 February 2021
Having introduced script, the defining feature of the manuscript, this chapter addresses a ubiquitous feature of medieval handwriting: abbreviating words with specific, recognizable symbols. To a literate person, reading a book is fairly straightforward: just pick it up, flip to the first page, and start reading. However, if you want to read medieval script as a modern reader, there are some challenges to overcome. It turns out you need to decode quite a bit of text first. The first round of decoding happens when your eyes meet the page. As the previous chapter showed, medieval letters are shaped very differently from those today, and some are actually quite difficult to read.
See what happens, for example, when you start reading the famous Leiden Glossary (Figure 23). The paleographer E. A. Lowe defined this script as a pre-Caroline Alemannic minuscule, which means it dates from before the establishment of Caroline minuscule, which developed shortly before the year 800. It is relatively easy to decode Caroline minuscule with our modern brains. This is because early printers in Italy used the script as a model for Roman typefaces, which ultimately became our Times New Roman. Because most people read a version of Caroline minuscule in books or on their computer screens every day, they can identify the letters on a ninth-century page even if they don't know what the Latin words mean. The script in Figure 23, however, is far more difficult to consume, as you may have noticed, because our brains are not used to these letter shapes. Carolingian readers of around 800 would not have found this script illegible because they were trained to read it.
However, even when you are able to read a challenging script like this (and one can learn to do so in paleography classes), there is a second coding problem to overcome, which is much trickier: letters and words are frequently abbreviated with symbols. In fact, sometimes a full page or even an entire book is written in this “code.” Like any cipher, you can only read it if you know the key. It is this kind of decoding of abbreviated words, some made up of special signs, that stands centre stage here as a defining feature of medieval script.