Visual Paleography

Ever wonder precisely what a "gothic textura quadrata" really is? Actually, the nomenclature for styles of historic writing is a complex issue well beyond the scope of this simple article. Instead, this humble article proposes but one thing: a simple, quick visual reference to handwriting, allowing a glance specifically at bookhands typically used between 500-1600. None of the following examples were chosen for their especial beauty and so forth, merely as examples of particular hands.

Artificial Uncial

In use approximately 500-999 CE



This hand is generally written with a broad nib pen held at an angle of approximately 10 degrees from baseline. It's a slightly rounded, very even hand. It's most distinguishing characteristic is the trails from the letters "i", "f", "r". One must write slowly; this hand requires some significant pen manipulation to create the trails and some of the serifs such as are found on the ends of the "e", "c", and "f".


Insular Majuscule

In use approximately 500-999 CE

This book hand is found primarily in the British Isles. It's a very distinctive hand, written with a broad nib at about a 20-degree angle.

Insular Miniscule

In use approximately 500-1099 CE

Another British hand. The hand here is written with broad pen at an angle between 45-70 degrees from baseline. Unlike Insular Majuscule, this hand is relatively quick to write and has many, many ligatures, making it somewhat difficult to read for those not accustomed to it.


Carolingian Miniscule

In use approximately 900-1150 CE

This is a very round hand; beautiful when executed well and still attractive when executed terribly. Period examples show a wide variety of serifs on ascenders, but this example is clear of complex pen manipulation and multiple strokes. It's written with a broad pen at a 45-degree angle to baseline. Notable about this hand is the exclusive use of long-s, the appearance of punctuation recognizable to the modern eye, and the continuation of the uncial form of the letter "t." Also if interest in this particular example is the use of older bookhands used to write important passages--note the cut off "raven" in the upper right area. This was a very typical practice, both in Carolingian books and in most books written throughout period.

Early Gothic

In use approximately 1000-1199 CE

This is a transitional hand, and there are some paleographical scholars who question the need for the classification. Be that as it may, it's generally recognized as a distinct hand in its own right. It's written at 20-45 degrees to baseline with a broad nib pen. In it, we see the beginning of the angular compression that will eventually result in the extreme compression of the northern gothic textura hands. The letter "w" also begins to appear in this hand, but we still see the uncial "t" and Carolingian exclusive use of long-s.


Gothic in its many forms

In wide use 1200-1600 CE, in use in specific areas and/or for specific purposes into the 20th century.

There is no other bookhand so widely divergent as is this classification of hands. Many a skilled paleographer or codicologist can identify idiosyncrasies that make, say, one Carolingian hand plainly early Frankish while another Carolingian is late Italian, but nothing beats the complexity of classification assigned to the gothic family of hands. For this article, we'll examine the two broadest classifications, gothic textura and gothic littera bastarda.

Gothic Textura

Gothic hand based on Albrecht Durer's instruction on incised letters, c. 1535. German.


English (?) hand of the 15th century--full page here.


Dutch hand of the 15th century--full page here.


French hand, 15th century--full page here.


Gothic textura's are extremely compressed; the English (?) and French examples above are most like a classic textura quadrata, if such a thing could be said to exist. The Dutch hand is a bit rounded, and the Italian hand is actually called "Gothic Rotunda", but on the whole, all the above hands are examples of the compressed hands in use for the best books during the heyday of the gothic hand.

Gothic Littera Bastarda



English, early 15th century


German, 16th century


French, 15th century--whole page here.

The various bastarda hands are more cursive than the textura hands. While bastarda started out as a strictly documentary hand, they eventually gained in favor with the various workshops as the bastarda's are far more rapidly written.

It is during the gothic era that we see "v" and "u" come into use a little less interchangeably--but both still used for the vowel and the consonant sounds--and a noticeable "j" form of "i". "J" and "i", however, are still interchangeable for the vowel and the consonant sound. The "U/V" and "I/J" rules won't settle into the pattern modernly used in English until well after 1600 CE.



15th century onwards


Written at a 30-degree angle.

Another, less practiced hand, at a 30-degree angle but a larger x-height.

This is the hand that would last into the present day. During the course of the 15th century, the Italians, trying to get away from what they perceived as the ignorance and barbarity of the previous centuries--the era they would name "Gothic"--looked to the texts of the past, seeking to bring forth Classical learning. One way in which they attempted to accomplish this was by moving from a gothic hand to an updated "classical" hand. Of course, we now know that what they thought was a "classical" hand was actually a hand of the early middle ages--Carolingian. Nonetheless, the substitution of the updated Carolingian hand, called the Humanist hand--so called for its use in written works from the Humanist movement--was so successful that it is today the basis of most modern typefaces and printed writing. A modern calligraphy hand, known as "Foundational," falls into this category, as well--this hand was developed in the early part of the 20th century. You can find out more about the specifics of its development by reading Writing & Illuminating & Lettering, referenced in the bibliography link below.


15th century onwards

Developing concurrently with the Humanist hand, Chancery was the hand in use as the Papal secretary hand. Initially used for documents only, like g. littera bastarda, the rapid speed with which this hand could be written led to its adoption as a bookhand. The origin of the hand is apparent in the name: Chancery is the diocesan office performing secretarial services for the bishop, and Italic is, of course, derived from Italian.





Still to be added to the timeline: Rustica (100 CE), Uncial (300-600 CE), and additional images of the hands listed above.



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Copyright 1999, Elise (Elyse) C. Boucher