What is the English name for a highly decorated letter at the beginning of a paragraph, mostly found in ancient texts?

For example, in the following Opening folio of the Hengwrt manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, the letter W - the first letter in the page - is beautifully painted.

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3 Answers 3


They are known as Initials or Drop Caps, depending on whether the large first letter rises above the text or, as in your image, goes down below it. This is from the Wikipedia entry linked earlier:

an initial is a letter at the beginning of a word, a chapter, or a paragraph that is larger than the rest of the text.

  • 1
    Could you please add a link to your citation?
    – Adam Matan
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 10:22
  • 1
    I could and I can and I did. Commented May 31, 2013 at 17:41

More specifically, the decorated initial is Illuminated. With the addition of the fancy borders, your example as a whole would be described as an Illuminated Manuscript.


They are Rubrics or Initials. There is a very faint differentiation between the two terms:

Rubric can imply coloring, but need not. A rubric stands out on the page.

An Initial can be just slightly larger than the text, but must be distinctive. It stands out at least in the mass of text, and usually on the page.

Rubrics are always initials, initials are not always good at being rubrics.

Add to this that a rubric in old book work referred also to any letter that was printed or engrossed in red, such as the "R." used to show the response in psalters.

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