*Note:  For the purpose of this tutorial, examples from the Isaiah manuscript have been used.


Before beginning to work on a manuscript, it is important to have a bit of information about the script in which each manuscript was written. Our study will concentrate on Gothic scripts.


Gothic Scripts

Gothic scripts refer to the style of writing used in the 13th – 15th centuries. Gothic was the most widely used and longest lasting of all of the medieval scripts. There are many subtypes of Gothic scripts, and the terminology attached to the subtypes varies among scholars. For our purposes, we will try to get a very basic understanding of some of the features of Gothic scripts.


Characteristics of Gothic Scripts  


Tall, Angular Letters

Gothic scripts grew out of an earlier script called Carolingian. Carolingian script was characterized by round letters, broadly formed and widely spaced, giving a more roomy look to the page as opposed to a compressed appearance.

Gothic scripts moved away from the Caroline roundness of letters toward more tall and angular letters with more lateral compression on the page.


The “Breaking of Bows”

Previous scripts were characters by bowed letters that are smooth and rounded. In Gothic scripts, letters that bow out (b, o, d, p) are formed by multiple connected strokes rather than one circular stroke, giving each bowed letter a more angular appearance. This more angular way of making bows is referred to as the “breaking of bows”. Below are some examples from the Isaiah manuscript. Notice how the bows in each letter are formed by multiple angular strokes rather than a single rounded stroke:










The “Biting of Bows”

To save space on the leaf, letters are often compressed very snugly together. Sometimes letters with rounded bows actually “bite” one another so that their bows touch. The “biting” letters give the appearance of being joined together. Here are a few examples of “biting bows” from the Isaiah manuscript:


dabo (with “biting” “b” and “o”): 


populos (with “biting” “p” and “o”): 


letaberis (in classical Latin laetaberis) (with “biting” “b” and “e”): 


turbo (with “biting” “b” and “o”): 


pauperes (with “biting” “p” and “e”): 


Note: the “p? with the horizontal line coming from the descender = “per”


pones (with “biting” “p” and “o”): 

The Presence of Post-Bow “R”


In Gothic scripts, there is a more angular “r” which looks a bit like the number “2” which is used after bowed letters. Here are some examples from the Isaiah manuscript:






Here are some examples of regular “r” from the Isaiah manuscript:








Here is a word with one regular “r” and one post bow “r”:




Minims and their “Woven” Effect


Gothic is characterized by a “woven” effect. The letters become so angular and so compressed on the page that the individual strokes of each letter become nearly indistinguishable from the strokes of the previous and subsequent letters. The visual impact is that the word as a whole becomes more important than the legibility of each individual letter.


One thing that contributed greatly to the woven effect of Gothic was the uniformity of letters created by the use of minims (from Latin minimum “smallest, least”. Minims are the short, vertical strokes used in creating the letters “i”, “m”, “n”, and “u”. A succession of minims can leave a reader’s eyes worn out in attempting to discern one letter from the next.


Here is an example taken from the Isaiah manuscript manuscript:



This is the Latin word manum (hand). See how the “m”, “n”, and “u” shapes are formed with identical strokes? These short, uniform strokes are minims. You can see how difficult it is to tease apart the different letters within this word.

Here is another example from the Isaiah manuscript:




It can be a challenge to discern which lines belong to which letters and where one letter ends and the next begins. Notice the faint curved marks above the word. These are actually dots over each letter “i”. Looking at the manuscript overall, the scribe is not consistent in the dotting of “i”, but the general rule was to dot an “i” in the midst of minims, making it easier for the reader to figure out which strokes belong to which letters. Without dotting each “i”, it is difficult to figure out the individual letters. In the example above, it is much easier to tease apart the letters: h-o-m-i-n-i-s.

Paying Attention to the Feet of the Letters

When classifying types of Gothic scripts, scholars pay careful attention to the “feet” of the letters, the bottom of each vertical stroke. Scholars classify subtypes of Gothic, in part, from the shapes of the feet of the letters: diamond shaped, clubbed, or with feet turned upwards to the right. Some Gothic scripts lack decoration or flourish at the base of letters. These scripts are referred to as sine pedibus (without feet).

Here are some examples:


Notice that the “feet” of the letters in the Isaiah manuscript uniformly curve upwards to the right:





Ascenders and Descenders Are Also Important

Scholars also pay attention to the tops of ascending letters like “l” and “b” and the bottoms of descending letters like “p” and ‘q”. Are they tall or relatively short? Are they forked, flat, or clubbed? Are they curved or straight? These details help paleographers to localize scripts and to determine a time period in which they were written.

Test Yourself

Below are the first eleven lines from the Isaiah manuscript.

Can you pick out the words manum and hominis?

Can you make out any other letters?

Can you make out any other words?

What else do you notice?

Can you find a dotted “i”?

Can you find an example of a letter with “breaking bows”?

Can you find some “biting” letters?

How many examples of post-bow “r” can you find?



Bibliographic Note:  The following source was used for this section. For further reading, see:


Albert Derolez:  The Paleography of Gothic Manuscript Books: From the Twelfth to the Early Sixteenth Century, Cambridge University Press: 2003.