The Carolingian Minuscule

Modernism in the Making

Pretty modern, right?

The 8th century was a period of much cultural activity in Europe. Headed by Charlemagne, the Continent saw an increase in the arts, literature, writing, liturgy, and scriptural studies. It was an attempt to recreate the Roman culture of the 4th century, and though most of the cultural gains of the period dissipated after a few generations, some stand out as important steps towards the future. Principal among these was the standardisation of script across the empire: The Carolingian Minuscule.

The Carolingian Minuscule was an attempt at unification of communication. Conceived to be legible and recognisable to everyone within the literate class across the Holy Roman Empire. It attempted to create a clear, uniform, and legible letter style; to create an ideal that removed idiosyncrasies that changed from one scriptorium to another. It was an ideal that would later become one of the cornerstones of Modernist typography, and it could be argued that the Carolingian Minuscule was an early foray into universal type — or rather, universal hand.

Charlemagne himself was not a fully literate man, but he understood the value of literacy and clear communication in running his empire. He spent much of his later life trying to learn to write and was alleged to have kept tablets beneath his pillow so that he could practice forming letters. It was, in the end, not a success for him, but this interest in learning and writing resulted in efforts on his part to revive the literate culture of Classical Rome, and under his patronage the Carolingian Minuscule was developed as a universal script for the Frankish empire.

Charlemagne, emperor, culture-vulture, beard enthusiast.

The Merovingian and Germanic minuscules were already being remodelled around this time, with their forms being rendered neater, rounder, and simpler. It was out of these alterations, and with the influence of the Roman half uncial, that the Carolingian Minuscule arose. The script spread through Western Europe where Carolingian influence was at its strongest, even though many scriptoria retained certain individuality of style from their earlier minuscule scripts. For instance, the English Carolingian used wedge shaped ascenders taken from the earlier insular minuscule script, rather than more rational forms of Charlemagne’s Carolingian.

The English variant of Carolingian script.

Interestingly, institutions like the Carolingian chancery preferred the script for liturgy and chose to keep the calligraphic flourishes of the Merovingian chancery script for important legal documents and charters. It seems that clarity and legibility were regarded as less important for legal documents than for religious manuscripts.

However, in the 9th century, establishments using the Carolingian script adopted a more standardised form. It is thought that the monastery at Tours may have been responsible for this, as it distributed manuscripts to other monasteries. In these luxuriously produced Lectionaries, made for the patronage of abbots and bishops, legibility was essential.

It was far-reaching, with versions of the script appearing all over Europe. The first Roman-script recording of any Slavic language, the Freising manuscripts, were written in the Carolingian Minuscule. The Swiss adapted their own versions of the minuscule: the Rhaetian minuscule, a more slender script with ligatures such as “ri”, and the Alemannic minuscule which was broader and more vertical than the Rhaetian script. It was used in Salzburg, Austria, and in Fuida, Mainz, and Würzburg in Saxon Germany. During Benedictine reforms in the 10th century England began to adopt the new legible hand.

The Freising Manuscript.

However, outside the influence of Charlemagne the script was resisted. Rome developed the Romanesca type and this spread slowly over Papal Europe, eventually superseding cultural minuscules outside of the Carolingian influence.

The form of the Carolingian Minuscule was a concise set of characters that rationalised aspects of the scripts that were muddying the written waters, like the nuances in size of capitals and long descenders. It created a more legible hand that any literate man in the empire could read, quickening communication and ensuring important messages were not lost in illegibility. However, some of the letterforms in Carolingian script differ significantly from our modern Latin characters, whether it be the liberal use of ligatures in early Carolingian hand or now defunct characters (shown below).

Common ligatures in the Carolingian Minuscule

More troubling for the modern eye are the abbreviations employed in Carolingian text in order to make manuscripts shorter (and cheaper, turns out scribes were tight). Simple words like aut would be shortened simply to ā and common words like Iesus would be abbreviated to iħs.

Common abbreviations in Carolingian scripts

It is not inherently unreadable — indeed, by design, it is quite the opposite — it is just the way Latin was written at the time that presents difficulties to us. But thanks to the Carolingian Minuscule and the reforms around its development we have access to many texts that otherwise would have been forgotten. During the Carolingian Renaissance scholars found and copied, in the new standard script, many Roman texts that had been thought lost. It is from those copies that most of our knowledge of classical literature is derived from. Over seven thousand manuscripts survive from the scriptoria of Charlemagne alone.

The Carolingian Minuscule eventually developed into another European standard, Blackletter. But during the Carolingian Renaissance the reforms of Charlemagne were responsible for the revival of a number of texts and the implementation of what can genuinely be considered a contender for the first real standard in typography.

It later experienced a revival when discovered by the humanists of the early Renaissance who took the Carolingian manuscripts to be ancient Roman originals and modelled their scripts on the Carolingian Minuscule. From this starting point it passed to 15th and 16th century printers and, in doing so, formed the basis for our modern lowercase typefaces.

The Carolingian Minuscule was thoroughly Modernist type before it was cool to be Modernist. With its attempts to, firstly, rationalise the muddle of scripts floating around Europe and then its aim of becoming a standard across a whole, diverse empire, it is modern to the core. Considering a timeline that starts with Charlemagne’s reforms, one can see a linear progression from the Carolingian Minuscule, through Blackletter, all the way to the Grotesk that started appearing in the late 1800s in Germany. Farfetched as it might seem, the Carolingian Minuscule has a real claim to being the first step towards standardisation and the sans-serif, even if it looks far removed from our contemporary typefaces.