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Manuscript Studies
Medieval and Early Modern

IV.iv. Paleography: Letter Formation

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Ductus: the overall, general "nature" of the production of a given script, defined in terms of the "number, sequence, and direction of the strokes used in forming each letter of the script's alphabet. . . . A knowledge of ductus, which is more concerned with the dynamic than with the static aspect of letters, can be helpful in reading, dating, and placing scripts, but its most important service comes in explaining changes in the appearance of letters. It is largely ductus which determines where the inertial forces and strains generated by rapid writing will express themselves. But if ductus can help generate changes in appearance, changes in appearance can also generate changes in ductus" (James J. John, "Latin Paleography," Medieval Studies, 2nd ed., p. 8).

Stroke: a single sweep of the pen; may be a single "movement" (that is, with no change of direction) or may be a "broken" stroke.

Otiose stroke: a superfluous stroke, not to be interpreted as part of a letter, a punctuation mark, or as an indication of an abbreviation.

A. Vertical strokes:

Minim: the shortest and simplest stroke: the vertical (upright) stroke used to form the letters "i," "m," "n," and "u." The word "minim" itself would be written in Gothic script with 10 minims.

Ascenders, descenders: strokes ascending or descending from the "body" of the letter. It can be useful to think of majuscules as fitting between two imaginary lines, minuscules as fitting between four lines (two lines defining the top and bottom of the body, two more distant lines defining the extent of ascenders and descenders).

Stem: the minim with ascender or descender which supports the rest of the letter.

B. Horizontal strokes:

Bar: the horizontal stroke of an "A" or "H."

Arms (hastas): the horizontal strokes of an "E," "F," or "L"; these extend from, but do not cross, the stem.

Head (top) strokes: the horizontal stroke of the "T."

C. Curved strokes:

for the most part, these are named after the letter formed from them: a "c-stroke," an "s-stroke," etc. (or one can speak of "circles," "arc," "ovals," "ellipses," etc.).

Bow (lobe): a circle appended to a stem (as in "p," "b," "q," or "d").

Limb: the curved stroke of an "h."

Cusp: where two curved lines meet.

D. Other aspects:

Shading: the presence of differing thicknesses of stroke.

Slant: the degree of variation from the true vertical.

Serif: a decorative, finishing flourish on a stroke. Scripts (and typefaces) can be classified as "serif" or "sans serif" according to the presence or absence of serifs.

Ligature: a line joining two characters (a bar crossing a pair of els, for instance).

Digraph: a character created by joining two others representing a single sound (for instance, Æ, the aesh).

Biting: when two adjoining and contrary curves (a "b" followed by an "o," for instance) overlap or share a stroke. Biting is a characteristic of Gothic and Humanistic scripts.

The following is a consise and useful clarification of some of the basic terminology in the study of handwriting. It comes from M. B. Parkes, "A Note on Palaeographical Terms," English Cursive Book Hands, 1250-1500, Oxford Palaeographical Handbooks (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), p. xxvi.

"A script is the model which the scribe has in his mind's eye when he writes, whereas a hand is what he actually puts down on the page. The duct of a hand is the distinctive manner in which strokes are traced upon the writing surface: it represents the combination of such factors as the angle at which the pen was held in relation to the way in which it was cut, the degree of pressure applied to it, and the direction in which it was moved. A stroke is a single trace made by the pen on the page; if the stroke has no sudden change of direction, it is made in a single movement. A broken stroke is made in more than one movement, the direction of the pen being changed suddenly without its being lifted from the page. A minim stroke is the shortest and simplest stroke: that used to form the letters i, m, n, u. An otiose stroke is a superfluous stroke, one which does not form part of a letter, and which does not indicate an abbreviation. Biting occurs when two adjacent contrary curved strokes coalesce, as when b is closely followed by o. The terms used when describing letter forms are best elucidated by examples: the letter b comprises a stem or mainstroke which rises above the general level of the other letters (ascender) and a lobe made with a curved stroke to the right of the stem; the letter p a descender and a lobe; the letter h an ascender and a limb; the letter t a shaft and a headstroke. The body of a letter form is that part which does not include an ascender or descender."

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[ Course Notes: Introduction ] | [ I. Towards a definition of "manuscript studies" ] | [ I.ii. The four branches of bibliographical study ] | [ I.iii. Topics in the social history of texts ] | I.iii.a The "Rescue" of Medieval Manuscripts from Grocers and Fishmongers | [ II. Diplomatics ] | [ III. Codicology ] | [ III.ii. Decoration and Illumination ] | [ IV. Paleography ] | [ IV.ii. Historical Notes ] | [ IV.iii. Writing Implements ] | [ IV.iv. Letter Formation ] | [ IV.v. Special Characters in English Manuscripts ] | [ IV.vi. Scribal Abbreviations ] | [ IV.vii. Punctuation ] | [ IV.viii. Paleographical sample: William Herebert, OFM (early fourteenth-century England) ] | [ Herebert sample, with transcription ] | [ Herebert sample: enlargement of full page reproduced at high resolution ] | [ V. Textual analysis (James E. Thorpe) ] | [ V.ii. Scribal error ] | [ V.iii. Kinds of edition ] | [ V.iv. Examples of over emendation on insufficient grounds ] | [ VI. Linguistic competence (an example): An Outline History of the English Language ] | [ VII. Libraries and archives: ] | [ VII.ii. British Library Manuscript Collections ] | [ VII.iii. Bodleian Library Manuscript Collections ]

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© 1998, 2015 Stephen R. Reimer
English; University of Alberta; Edmonton, Canada
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Created: 2 Dec. 1998; Last revised: 30 May 2015

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