Charlemagne and Me : Caroline Miniscule and Palaeography Lessons

After the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th Century AD, the European political map was transformed from homogeneity to a patchwork of (frequently warring) Kingdoms. Trade, population and cultural output all continued their decline which had begun during the later Roman Period. The term ‘Dark Age’ was developed by Early Modern Historians to refer to this period, between the bright lights of Rome and their rediscovery in the Italian Renaissance of the 14th Century. As a historical narrative (and one still prevalent today) it has some truth, but excludes some important developments – cultural and political – made in the Early Middle Ages, as well as some extraordinarily colourful characters.

One such is Charlemagne, King of the Franks, and from 800 the first ruler to be called Emperor in Western Europe since the Romans. However, this was no idle self-styling – Charlemagne’s domains stretched from the beaches of Northern Germany to the Dalmatian coast, as far west as Brittany and down to a few Mediterranean islands. He had to fight hard to keep his realm together, but his was a rule that had an impact on intellectual life as well as the battlefield.


Charlemagne and his descendants, here depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

By the 8th Century, Latin had degenerated in certain regions to such a multiplicity of dialects that they eventually became mutually unintelligible. In other places, such as England, immigration saw Latin displaced altogether by Germanic languages. For a ruler like Charlemagne, overseeing a multi-lingual Empire, having just one bureaucratic language would confer many obvious advantages. Proper, Classical Latin, as the former language of Imperial authority, would have seemed the obvious choice. But first, everyone’s Latin needed a major brush-up. Schools were established, and Europe’s leading thinkers were invited to Charlemagne’s court. Art, architecture and music were flourishing for the first time in centuries, and people began to write down things again (their current affairs, our history). Yet there was one reform enacted that still has a legacy whose effects last to this day and each and every one of you reading this article.

To coincide with the linguistic reforms, an improvement was needed in written communications. A new highly legible script – Caroline minuscule – was developed and standardised for official state use. Its similarity to the Insular script, in use in Britain and Ireland since the 7th century, is evidence that British monks were leading players in intellectual life in Charlemagne’s court. Indeed, we know that Charlemagne sent specifically for one Alcuin of York to run his palace school and scriptorium in Aachen. Caroline minuscule text was to flourish for the next few hundred years, until gradually gothic blackletter became more fashionable in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Caroline minuscule

Anglo-Saxon handwriting, very similar in style to Caroline minuscule, is relatively easy to understand… Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

As part of my Heritage Lottery Funded placement at Worcester Cathedral Library, I am learning palaeography under my supervisor Dr David Morrison. While most of the medieval manuscripts in our library are still mostly unintelligible to me, I am making good progress with reading our earliest Anglo-Saxon hands, which are not at all dissimilar to Caroline minuscule, nor even that far off standard modern letter forms. This is no co-incidence, however. When renaissance scholars began examining texts produced in Charlemagne’s scriptoria (the vast majority from Classical Greek and Roman authors), they assumed that the script used – elegant and functional – must have been that used by the Classical Romans themselves. Blackletter became hideously unfashionable amongst certain circles, and Caroline minuscule was back with a vengeance. Its use by these renaissance scholars was gradually transmitted to printers and typesetters in later medieval and early modern period, and so forms the basis of all typefaces in widespread use today.

Q103 f211

…unlike the later blackletter. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Spare a thought for poor old Charlemagne though. Although he was wise enough to see the importance of literacy and communication for his Empire, he left learning to read and write until too late in his life to be able to ever really master it.

Tom Hopkins



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