History of European calligraphy

1. Sumerian cuneiform script (4000 BC)

Sumerian cuneiform script - written language

The cuneiform script is the earliest known form of written expression. Created by the Sumerians from ca. 3000 BC (with predecessors reaching into the late 4th millennium Uruk IV period), cuneiform writing began as a system of pictographs. Over time, the pictorial representations became simplified and more abstract.

Cuneiforms were written on clay tablets, on which symbols were drawn with a blunt reed for a stylus. The impressions left by the stylus were wedge shaped, thus giving rise to the name cuneiform ("wedge shaped").

The Sumerian script was adapted for the writing of the Akkadian, Elamite, Hittite (and Luwian), Hurrian (and Urartian) languages, and it inspired the Old Persian and Ugaritic national alphabets.

The cuneiform writing system originated perhaps around 3000 BC in Sumer; its latest surviving use is dated to 75 AD.

The cuneiform script underwent considerable changes over a period of more than two millennia.

Originally, pictograms were drawn on clay tablets in vertical columns with a pen made from a sharpened reed stylus, or incised in stone. This early style lacked the characteristic wedge-shape of the strokes.

Certain signs to indicate names of gods, countries, cities, vessels, birds, trees, etc., are known as "determinants", and were the Sumerian signs of the terms in question, added as a guide for the reader. Proper names continued to be usually written in purely "ideographic" fashion.

From about 2900 BC, many pictographs began to lose their original function, and a given sign could have various meanings depending on context. The sign inventory was reduced from some 1,500 signs to some 600 signs, and writing became increasingly phonological. Determinative signs were re-introduced to avoid ambiguity. This process is directly parallel to, and possibly not independent of, the development of Egyptian hieroglyphic orthography.

2. Egyptian hieroglyphs (4000 BC)

Egyptian hieroglyphs - written language

Egyptian hieroglyphs (from Greek ἱερογλύφος "sacred carving", also hieroglyphics = τὰ ἱερογλυφικά [γράμματα]) was a formal writing system used by the ancient Egyptians that contained a combination of logographic and alphabetic elements. Egyptians used cursive hieroglyphs for religious literature on papyrus and wood. Less formal variations of the script, called hieratic and demotic, are technically not hieroglyphs.

The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek adjective ἱερογλυφικά (hieroglyphiká), a compound of ἱερός (hierós 'sacred') and γλύφω (glýphō 'to engrave'; see glyph). The glyphs themselves were called τὰ ἱερογλυφικά γράμματα (tà hieroglyphiká grámmata, 'the sacred engraved letters'). The word hieroglyph has become a noun in English, standing for an individual hieroglyphic character. While "hieroglyphics" is commonly used, it is discouraged by Egyptologists.

Hieroglyphs emerged from the preliterate artistic traditions of Egypt. For example, symbols on Gerzean pottery from circa 4000 BC resemble hieroglyphic writing. For many years the earliest known hieroglyphic inscription was the Narmer Palette, found during excavations at Hierakonpolis (modern Kawm al-Ahmar) in the 1890s, which has been dated to circa 3200 BCE.

However, in 1998 a German archaeological team under Günter Dreyer excavating at Abydos (modern Umm el-Qa'ab) uncovered tomb U-j of a Predynastic ruler, and recovered three hundred clay labels inscribed with proto-hieroglyphs, dating to the Naqada IIIA period of the 33rd century BC. The first full sentence written in hieroglyphs so far discovered was found on a seal impression found in the tomb of Seth-Peribsen at Umm el-Qa'ab, which dates from the Second Dynasty. In the era of the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom, about 800 hieroglyphs existed. By the Greco-Roman period, they numbered more than 5,000.

Hieroglyphs consist of three kinds of glyphs: phonetic glyphs, including single-consonant characters that functioned like an alphabet; logographs, representing morphemes; and determinatives, which narrowed down the meaning of a logographic or phonetic words.

As writing developed and became more widespread among the Egyptian people, simplified glyph forms developed, resulting in the hieratic (priestly) and demotic (popular) scripts. These variants were also more suited than hieroglyphs for use on papyrus. Hieroglyphic writing was not, however, eclipsed, but existed alongside the other forms, especially in monumental and other formal writing. The Rosetta Stone contains parallel texts in hieroglyphic and demotic writing.

Hieroglyphs continued to be used under Persian rule (intermittent in the 6th and 5th centuries BC), and after Alexander's conquest of Egypt, during the ensuing Macedonian and Roman periods. It appears that the misleading quality of comments from Greek and Roman writers about hieroglyphs came about, at least in part, as a response to the changed political situation. Some believe that hieroglyphs may have functioned as a way to distinguish 'true Egyptians' from the foreign conquerors. Another reason may be the refusal to tackle a foreign culture on its own terms which characterized Greco-Roman approaches to Egyptian culture generally. Having learned that hieroglyphs were sacred writing, Greco-Roman authors imagined the complex but rational system as an allegorical, even magical, system transmitting secret, mystical knowledge.

By the 4th century, few Egyptians were capable of reading hieroglyphs, and the myth of allegorical hieroglyphs was ascendant. Monumental use of hieroglyphs ceased after the closing of all non-Christian temples in AD 391 by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I; the last known inscription is from Philae, known as the The Graffito of Esmet-Akhom, from AD 396.

3. Greek capital writing (3000 BC)

Greek capital writing - written language

The History of the Greek alphabet starts with the adoption of Phoenician letter forms and continues to the present day. This article concentrates on the early period, before the codification of the now-standard Greek alphabet.

The Phoenician alphabet was strictly speaking an abjad that was consistently explicit only about consonants, though even by the 9th century BC it had developed matres lectionis to indicate some, mostly final, vowels. This arrangement is much less suitable for Greek than for Semitic languages, and these matres lectionis, as well as several Phoenician letters which represented consonants not present in Greek, were adapted to represent vowels consistently, if not unambiguously; consequently the Greek alphabet can be considered to be the world's first true alphabet.

Most specialists believe that the Phoenician alphabet was adopted for Greek during the early 8th century BC, perhaps in Euboea. The earliest known fragmentary Greek inscriptions date from this time, 770-750 BC, and they match Phoenician letter forms of c. 800-750 BC. The oldest substantial texts known to date are the Dipylon inscription and the text on the so-called Cup of Nestor, both dated to the late 8th century BC.

Some scholars argue for earlier dates: Naveh (1973) for the 11th century, Stieglitz (1981) for the 14th century, Bernal (1990) for the 18th–13th century,some 9th, but none of these are widely accepted.

4. Roman majuscules and minuscule (1-6 centuries)

Roman majuscules and minuscule - written language

All the letters in a majuscule script are contained between a single pair of real or theoretical horizontal lines. Today we have very few Latin manuscripts. No doubt, the letters sculptured on stone and written by hand were alike. But time flew and the letters differed from each other. The letters written by hand were simple, rounded and interconnected in the word.Unlike majuscules, minuscules are not fully contained between two real or hypothetical lines; their stems can go above or below the line. Developed by Alcuin in the 8th century, it allowed the division of writing into sentences and paragraphs by beginning sentences with capital letters and ending them with periods. The script was originally rounded, but gradually the strokes became heavier until it became what is now known as Gothic or black letter script.

Roman cursive capitals, a running-hand script, were customarily used in the Roman Empire for notes, business records, letters, and other informal or everyday uses. This form could be written with great speed and was, therefore, often written carelessly and tended toward illegibility. It was, nonetheless, one of several forerunners of the minuscule scripts that appeared later.

Roman majuscules and minuscule - written language

The new business hand of the 4th century and after is known as cursive minuscule. Like cursive capitals, it was written with a pointed pen, but the pen was held more or less straight. It, too, is a frankly minuscule alphabet and uses basically the same letter forms as half uncials, although the frequency in cursive minuscule of ligatures between letters tends to conceal the fundamental likeness...

The business hand of the 1st century, used for correspondence and for most documents, private and official alike, is known as cursive capitals. Here the pen, cut to a sharp point, was held at the same oblique angle but was lifted less often, and this “cursive” handling automatically produced new and simpler letter forms such as (two strokes) for D (three strokes) and...

The stately Roman scripts, quadrata, rustic, or uncial, were not used for everyday purposes, and, as in the case of Greek, a cursive, rapidly written hand arose in which letters and business documents were inscribed. This hand is found in graffiti on Pompeian walls and in wax tablets. After the disintegration of the empire, Roman cursive became the ancestor of regional hands in what are...

5. Roman capitals (1-5 centuries)

Roman capitals - written language

Roman square capitals, also called inscriptional capitals, elegant capitals and quadrata, are an ancient Roman form of writing, and the basis for modern capital letters.

Square capitals were used to write inscriptions, and less often to supplement everyday handwriting. When written in documents this style is known as Latin book hand. For everyday writing the Romans used a current cursive hand known as Latin cursive. Notable examples of square capitals used for inscriptions are found on the Pantheon, Trajan's Column, and the Arch of Titus, all in Rome. Square capitals are characterized by sharp, straight lines, supple curves, thick and thin strokes, angled stressing and incised serifs. These Roman capitals are also called majuscules, as a counterpart to minuscule letters such as Merovingian and Carolingian.

Before the 4th century, square capitals were used to write de luxe copies of the works of pagan authors, especially Virgil, whose works make up the only three surviving manuscripts using this letter (an example is the Vergilius Augusteus). After the 5th century the square capitals fell out of use, except as a display lettering for titles and chapter headings in conjunction with various script hands for body text, for example uncials.

Monotype's Felix Titling (1934) is based on a 1463 alphabet of Feliciano based on Roman inscriptions.

6. Uncial (4-8 centuries)

Uncial  - written language

Uncial is a majuscule script commonly used from the 3rd to 8th centuries AD by Latin and Greek scribes. From the 8th century to the 13th century the script was more often used as a display script in headings and titles.

Early uncial script most likely developed from late Old Roman cursive. Early forms are characterized by broad single stroke letters using simple round forms taking advantage of the new parchment and vellum surfaces, as opposed to the angular, multiple stroke letters which are more suited for rougher surfaces, such as papyrus. In the oldest examples of uncial, such as the De bellis macedonicis manuscript in the British Library, all of the letters are disconnected from one another, and word separation is typically not used. Word separation, however, is characteristic of later uncial usage.

As the script evolved over the centuries, the characters became more complex. Specifically, around AD 600, flourishes and exaggerations of the basic strokes began to appear in more manuscripts. Ascenders and descenders were the first major alterations, followed by twists of the tool in the basic stroke and overlapping. By the time the more compact minuscule scripts arose circa AD 800, some of the evolved uncial styles formed the basis for these simplified, smaller scripts. Uncial was still used, particularly for copies of the Bible, tapering off until around the 10th century. There are over 500 surviving copies of uncial script, by far the largest number prior to the Carolingian Renaissance.

Uncial  - written language

There is some doubt about the exact meaning of the word. Uncial itself probably comes from St. Jerome's preface to the Book of Job, where it is found in the form uncialibus, but it is possible that this is a misreading of inicialibus, and Jerome may have been referring to the larger initial letters found at the beginning of paragraphs.

Habeant qui volunt veteres libros, vel in membranis purpureis auro argentoque descriptos, vel uncialibus ut vulgo aiunt litteris onera magis exarata quam codices. - "There are people who want old books, either in purple-coloured parchment with gold and silver letters, either in uncial, as it is vulgarly said; which are more burden than codices”.

If the correct reading is uncialibus, it may mean that the letters occupied one-twelfth of a line of a manuscript, or perhaps that the ink used to write the letters cost an ounce of gold, or that they were decorated with gold and silver that either cost or weighed an ounce, or inch-high letter (one inch being one-twelfth of one foot).

The term uncial in the sense of describing this script was first used by Jean Mabillon in the early 18th century. Thereafter his definition was refined by Scipione Maffei, who used to refer to this script as distinct from Roman square capitals.

7. Half-uncial (6-9 centuries)

The term half-uncial or semi-uncial was first used in the mid-18th century by René Prosper Tassin and Charles François Toustain, and despite its common use and understanding, it is not a very accurate name - it is not really derived from regular uncial, but it does look similar and shares many of its features; sometimes, especially when both were developing, the two scripts were used simultaneously in a mixed-uncial script.

Like uncial, half-uncial derived from Roman cursive. It was first used around the 3rd century and remained in use until the end of the 8th century. The early forms of half-uncial were used for pagan authors and Roman legal writing, while in the 6th century the script came to be used in Africa and Europe (but not as often in insular centres) to transcribe Christian texts.

Some general forms of half-uncial letters are:

  •  a is usually round, sometimes with a slightly open top
  • b and d have vertical stems, identical to the modern letters
  • g has a flat top, no bow, and a curved descender (somewhat resembling the number 5)
  • t has a curved shaft
  • n, r, and s are similar to their uncial counterparts (with the same differences compared to modern letters)

Half-uncial was brought to Ireland in the 5th century, and was then carried to England. There, it was used up to the 8th century, and developed into the insular script after the 8th century.

8. Merovingian and Visigothic script (8-9 centuries)

Merovingian and Visigothic script - written language

Merovingian script was a medieval script so called because it was developed in France during the Merovingian dynasty. It was used in the 7th and 8th centuries before the Carolingian dynasty and the development of Carolingian minuscule.

There were four major centres of Merovingian script: the monasteries of Luxeuil, Laon, Corbie, and Chelles. Each script developed from uncial, half-uncial, and the Merovingian charter scripts.

The Luxeuil type uses distinctive long, slim capital letters as a display script. These capitals have wedge-shaped finials, and the crossbar of A resembles a small letter v while that of H is a wavy line. The letter O is often written as a diamond shape, with a smaller o written inside. In the Luxeuil minuscule script, the letter a resembles two letter cs ("cc"); b often has an open bow, and an arm connecting it to the following letter. Because of these features the Luxeuil type is sometimes called "a-b type." The letter d can have either a vertical ascender or an ascender slanted to the left; i is often very tall, resembling l; n can be written with an uncial form (similar to a capital N); o is often oval-shaped and has a line connecting it to the next letter; and t has a loop extending to the left of its top stroke. The letter t is also used in numerous ligatures where it has many other forms. The letters e and r are also quite often found in ligature.

The Laon type has thicker display capitals than the Luxeuil type. Capital initial letters are often decorated with animals, and there are many ligatures with the letter i. Like Visigothic script, there are two different ti ligatures, representing two different sounds ("hard" and "soft"). The letters d and q often have open bows. The letter a is unique, resembling two sharp points ("<<"), and the letter z, uncommon in Latin, is nevertheless very distinctive in the Laon type, with a flourish projecting upwards to the left, above the line. Because of these features, Laon type is sometimes called "a-z type."

Merovingian and Visigothic script - written language

The Corbie type as used in the 8th century, was based on uncial and the Luxeuil type, but was also similar to half-uncial and insular script, with elements of Roman cursive. It is sometimes called "eN-type," as the letter e has a high, open upper loop, and the uncial form of the letter n (resembling majuscule N) is very frequently used. After the mid-8th century, the letter also has an open loop and resembles the letter u; this type is referred to as "eNa-type." A more distinctive type was developed at Corbie in the 9th century, the "a-b type." The letter b is similar to Luxeuil type, but the letter a has a straight first stroke, resembling a combination of i and c. This type was used from the end of the 8th century until the mid-9th century. The Liber glossarum, a major medieval reference work, was written in the "a-b type" script of Corbie.

The Chelles type was similar to the Luxeuil a-b type. Other features include the uncial N, with strokes leaning to the left; the letter d with an ascender leaning to the left; the letter g with a descender resembling the letter s; the letter s with a very small top loop; and the letter x with the two strokes crossing near the top of the line rather than the middle.

There was also a Merovingian cursive script, used in charters and non-religious writings. All of these types were later influenced by Carolingian script, which eventually replaced it entirely. Along with resemblances to Carolingian and Visigothic, Merovingian shares some features with Beneventan script.

9. Old Italic script (9-13 centuries)

Old Italic script - written language

Italic script, also known as chancery cursive, is a semi-cursive, slightly sloped style of handwriting and calligraphy that was developed during the Renaissance in Italy. It is one of the most popular styles used in contemporary Western calligraphy, and is often one of the first scripts learned by beginning calligraphers.

One of the innovations of Niccoli's Italic script was the major change to the Humanist minuscule a.

Italic script is based largely on Humanist minuscule, which itself draws on Carolingian minuscule. The letters are the same as the Humanist capitals, modeled on Roman square capitals. The Italian scholar Niccolo Niccoli was dissatisfied with the lowercase forms of Humanist minuscule, however, finding it too slow to write. In response, he created the Italic script, which incorporates features and techniques characteristic of a quickly-written hand: oblique forms, fewer strokes per character, and the joining of letters. Perhaps the most significant change to any single character was to the form of the a, which he simplified from the two-story form to the one-story form now common in most handwriting styles.

Old Italic script - written language

Under the influence of Italic movable type used with printing presses, the style of handwritten Italic script moved towards disjoined, more mannered characters. By the 1550s the Italic script had become so laborious that it fell out of use with scribes.

The style became increasingly influenced by the development of Copperplate writing styles in the eighteenth century. The style Italic script used today is often heavily influenced by developments made as late as the early 20th century. In the past few decades, the italic script has been promoted in English-speaking countries as an easier-to-learn alternative to traditional styles of cursive handwriting. In the UK this revival was due in part to Alfred Fairbank's book A Handwriting Manual (1932).

10. Gothic script (blackletter), textualis (11-15 centuries)

Gothic script (blackletter), textualis - written language

Blackletter, also known as Gothic script, was a script used throughout Western Europe from approximately 1150 to 1500. It continued to be used for the German language until the twentieth century. Fraktur is a notable script of this type, and sometimes the entire group of faces is known as Fraktur.

Blackletter is not to be confused with Old English, despite the popular though untrue belief that it was written with Blackletter. Old English pre-dates Blackletter by many centuries.

Carolingian minuscule was the direct and linear ancestor of blackletter. Blackletter developed from Carolingian as an increasingly literate twelfth century Europe required new books in many different subjects. New universities were founded, each producing books for business, law, grammar, history, and other pursuits, not solely religious works for which earlier scripts typically had been used.

These books needed to be produced quickly to keep up with demand. Carolingian, though legible, was time-consuming and labour-intensive to produce. It was large and wide and took up a lot of space on a manuscript in a time when writing materials were very costly. As early as the eleventh century, different forms of Carolingian were already being used, and by the mid-twelfth century, a clearly distinguishable form, able to be written more quickly to meet the demand for new books, was being used in north-eastern France and the Low Countries.

The term Gothic was first used to describe this script in fifteenth century Italy, in the midst of the Renaissance, because Renaissance Humanists believed it was a barbaric script. Gothic was a synonym for barbaric. Flavio Biondo, in Italia Illustrata (1531) thought it was invented by the Lombards after their invasion of Italy in the sixth century.

Not only were blackletter forms called Gothic script, but any other seemingly barbarian script, such as Visigothic, Beneventan, and Merovingian, were also labeled "Gothic", in contrast to Carolingian minuscule, a highly legible script which the Humanists called littera antiqua, "the ancient letter", wrongly believing that it was the script used by the Romans. It was invented in the reign of Charlemagne, although only used significantly after that era.

The blackletter must not be confused either with the ancient alphabet of the Gothic language or with the sans-serif typefaces that are also sometimes called Gothic.

Textualis, also known as textura or Gothic bookhand, was the most calligraphic form of blackletter, and today is the form most associated with "Gothic". Johannes Gutenberg carved a textualis typeface – including a large number of ligatures and common abbreviations – when he printed his 42-line Bible. However, the textualis was rarely used for typefaces afterwards.

According to Dutch scholar Gerard Lieftinck, the pinnacle of use for blackletter was the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. For Lieftinck, the highest form of textualis was littera textualis formata, used for de luxe manuscripts. The usual form, simply littera textualis, was used for literary works and university texts. Lieftinck's third form, littera textualis currens, was the cursive form of blackletter, extremely difficult to read and used for textual glosses, and less important books.

Textualis was most widely used in France, the Low Countries, England, and Germany. Some characteristics of the script are:

  • tall, narrow letters, as compared to their Carolingian counterparts.
  • letters formed by sharp, straight, angular lines, unlike the typically round Carolingian; as a result, there is a high degree of "breaking", i.e. lines that do not necessarily connect with each other, especially in curved letters.
  • ascenders (in letters such as b, d, h) are vertical and often end in sharp finials
  • when a letter with a bow (in b, d, p, q) is followed by another letter with a bow (such as "be" or "po"), the bows overlap and the letters are joined by a straight line (this is known as "biting").
  • a related characteristic is the half r, the shape of r when attached to other letters with bows; only the bow and tail were written, connected to the bow of the previous letter. In other scripts, this only occurred in a ligature with the letter o.
  • similarly related is the form of the letter d when followed by a letter with a bow; its ascender is then curved to the left, like the uncial d. Otherwise the ascender is vertical.
  • the letters g, j, p, q, y, and the hook of h have descenders, but no other letters are written below the line.
  • the letter a has a straight back stroke, and the top loop eventually became closed, somewhat resembling the number 8. The letter s often has a diagonal line connecting its two bows, also somewhat resembling an 8, but the long s is frequently used in the middle of words.
  • minims, especially in the later period of the script, do not connect with each other. This makes it very difficult to distinguish i, u, m, and n. A fourteenth century example of the difficulty minims produced is, mimi numinum niuium minimi munium nimium uini muniminum imminui uiui minimum uolunt ("the smallest mimes of the gods of snow do not wish at all in their life that the great duty of the defences of the wine be diminished"). In blackletter this would look like a series of single strokes. Dotted i and the letter j developed because of this. Minims may also have finials of their own.
  • the script has many more scribal abbreviations than Carolingian, adding to the speed in which it could be written.

11. Rotunda, schwabacher (15 century)

Rotunda, schwabacher - written language

Italian blackletter also is known as rotunda, as it was less angular than in northern centres. The most usual form of Italian rotunda was littera bononiensis, used at the University of Bologna in the thirteenth century. Biting is a common feature in rotunda, but breaking is not.
Italian Rotunda also is characterized by unique abbreviations, such as q with a line beneath the bow signifying «qui», and unusual spellings, such as, x for s («milex» rather than «miles», and «knight»).

The letters of this script preserve roundings, they are wide and tensed. Only the top are broken. The rotunda is wider and broader than any other gothic scripts, and it is seen as a transitional form between gothic and antique. This is one of the few gothic scripts which can be adjusted by antique majuscules.

The rotunda, and especially its upper-Italic type, is one of the most beautiful scripts of Western Europe. It flourished in the 15th century and diminished during the renaissance period.

The development of the gothic script in South Europe ended with round gothic script, while in Northern Europe it flourished during the whole period called the Late gothic.

During the Late gothic period many script types were invented in Germany and were used there more than anywhere else.

The latest gothic script was the schwab writing or schwabacher. It is very wide and is more convenient for reading than textualis.


  1. Villu Toots, Contemporary script // M., Kniga, 1966, p. 9 - 57
  2. Albert Kapr, Deutsche Schriftkunst // VEB Verlag der Kunst. Dresden, 1955, p. 7, 33
  3. Malcolm Kauch, Artistic calligraphy. Art of neat writing 
  4. S.N. Sokol-Remizov, Literature. Calligraphy. Painting, 1985.
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