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I am wondering if there is a specific kind of writing that people would typically associate with Old English language. Are there well-known manuscripts that typically represent the kind of writing (letters, formatting, etc.) that would be used at the time and in the regions where Old English spread?

As a related question, are there any specific typefaces that people would typically associate with the Old English language? Are there typefaces designed from Old English manuscripts, or that convey this distinctive look, if it exists?

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4 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I just spent some quality time perusing the Insular and Anglo-Saxon chapters of Michelle P. Brown's A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 (pp. 48-49 and 58-59), as well as pp. 34-42 of Marc Drogin's Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique. The names they use for the scripts are varied and often conflicting, but they seem to agree on something like the following:

Saints Patrick and Augustine imported versions of Uncial and Roman Half-Uncial scripts into Ireland and Britain, respectively, in the early 5th and late 6th/early 7th centuries, again respectively. Those scripts evolved, cross-fertilized, and developed along the usual pattern of utility → formalization → decoration → exaggeration → need for a new utility script. The result was something probably best termed Insular Majuscule; think the Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels. This continued in use on both islands until the 9th century. Shortly after it appears, the utility version, Insular Minuscule also appears, and by the mid to late 9th century, entirely replaces the majuscule (uppercase) version. At that point, influences from the continent (read: Carolingian minuscule) would lead to a shift in writing styles for Latin documents, but Anglo-Saxon (aka Old English) continued to be written in Insular Minuscule until as late as the 12th century. Of course, Carolingian minuscule itself was developed at the court of Charlemagne under a certain abbot named Alcuin, born in — you guessed it — England.

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@Billare, thanks (I think) for adding all those links; I removed one of them (tug.dk/FontCatalogue/hge) because it's not relevant to this question: the so-called Old English font family is neither old nor English. (Better names for it are gothic or blackletter.) –  Marthaª Mar 3 '11 at 15:10
    
Cool. :) Is it possible to scrounge up a picture of that Old English script? –  Uticensis Mar 3 '11 at 20:57
    
@Billare: Just look at the response just below this one. –  Robusto Mar 3 '11 at 21:13
    
@Robusto D'oh! The only thing I saw was 'Chronicle'...thanks. –  Uticensis Mar 3 '11 at 21:16
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There are well known manuscripts, such as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which were written entirely in Old English. Also Beowulf, a few poems and so forth, but the Chronicle remains the longest piece of Old English writing we have. It was written by monks in calligraphic style. It was not written (and certainly not typeset) in the characters we come to think of as "Old English," although some of the letters might look similar.

An image from the Chronicle:

First page of Peterborough Chronicle

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The writing system for Old English was pretty consistent across its history. Here are a couple of image links:

to manuscripts of Beowulf

to manuscripts of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica

In general, the letter forms are not very different from Carolingian minuscule, but there is more frequent use of ligature digraphs, and, of course, there are letters like thorn and eth that don't appear in Latin.

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Interesting. I thought of Canterbury tales, but they are in Middle English... en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Canterbury_Tales –  mplungjan Feb 21 '11 at 15:34
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In contrast to the accurate answers that the others have given, what would in popular culture be thought of as the writing for Old English (and of course it depends whether you mean "Old English" in a technical sense) would be some sort of black letter like these: http://www.fontspace.com/category/blackletter

See wikipedia for more information.

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Also called Gothic script by the way. Never heard of Blackletter until today –  mplungjan Feb 21 '11 at 15:32
    
@mplungjan To be distinguished from gothic typeface which is something completely different again to add to the confusion. –  neil Feb 21 '11 at 23:21
    
The form of blackletter particularly the textualis rather than the cursiva form, used in England was called "Old English", but it was used in the time of Middle English, not with the Old English language. –  Jon Hanna Jan 13 '13 at 11:10
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protected by tchrist Apr 6 at 20:34

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