Merovingian Calligraphy

by Chrystofer Larchmont

Experts on the scribal arts are not a judgmental lot, but Merovingian calligraphy is one area in which they venture a critical toe outside the boundaries of their scholasticism. One refers to 'expert writing and charming initials' but the majority opinions not nearly so kind. "(Merovingian writing) can be at best be described as quaint, while at worst it is unspeakably hideous", "straggling tortured scrawls", and "deliberately illegible and inimitable" are only a few of the unkind words. If it elicits such sharp opinions from such bland and dusty scholars, the Merovingian hand cannot fail to be interesting!

Merovingian is just one of the styles of writing that evolved shortly after the fall of Rome. As Vandals, Visigoths and Ostrogoths flooded into Europe from the East, Rome gradually withdrew from its many provinces leaving the local government structures intact for the natives to make use of. Using the chancery cursive of the Roman authorities, the various tribes developed their own styles of writing, which remained until Charlemagne consolidated most of the local governments and imposed a new hand on the scribes of Europe. Visigothic, or Tolentana, evolved in Southern Gaul and Spain, where the Visigoths had settled; Lombardic sprung up in Northern Italy while Southern Italy produced the fascinating Benevetan, and the Franks, under Clovis (first Christian in the Merovingian dynasty), developed the Merovingian hand.

The intricacies of Merovingian are impossible to grasp without understanding the difference between cursives and bookhands. Cursive derives from the Latin word meaning 'running' or 'speed' and that is precisely what distinguishes the two: cursive writing today, just as 2,000 years ago, is written quickly with ligatures between the letters. Bookhands however are the historical equivalent of block letters.

Merovingian evolved from a fabulous array of sources, the oldest of which was the littera caelestia used for all imperial Roman documents after 367A.D. It was a rather scribbly cursive, written with a pointed (intead of a broad-edged) pen, and was just barely legible to the officials of the day. Originally, the forms of the normal Roman cursive were twisted and exaggerated in order to add grandeur to the imperial word, as well as to prevent forgery.

Given the general movement of tribes from East to West during that era, Iranian, Parthinan, and Avar influences were unavoidable. This can be seen in all the national hands used in Europe between the 6th and 9th centuries, particularly in the way that letterforms had no predetermined shape. Scribes could write an 'E' in one way here and quite differently there, so long as it was recognizable in both places. This had the effect of making writing a form of drawing; unfortunately, it also made it somewhat illegible.

A third thread in the tapestry was the arrival of St. Columba in Burgundy in 590. He left Britain to spread the word of the Celtic Church, which was battling with Rome over control of Christianity. Along with his religion, Columba brought the Irish majuscule (as seen in the Book of Kells) and the Anglo-Saxon minuscule, recognizable by its triangular serifs. In the 20 years that he spent in Merovingian Gaul, he founded three abbeys and his followers established many more. There was, however, very little writing going on even in Columba's scholastically oriented ambitious depotism, tempered by assassination. They were too buys slaughtering their neighbors and each other to think of encouraging learning.

Also during this time the Eastern influence on Europe increased. Syrians and Jews controlled most of the trade in the major cities of Gaul, and a Syrian, Eusebius, was even anointed bishop of Paris. Around 610 the hostilities between the Celtic and Roma churches came to a head, and Thierry II, siding with the wealth and power of Rome, ordered Columba out of Gaul. The saint barely escaped with his life. There ensued a power struggle between old, pro-ascetic elements and new, pro-wealth elements in the Merovingian abbeys, and it was only settled with the king appointed his former secretary Agrestius to a high position within the church.

Until then, monks had used the Irish and Anglo-Saxon hands for copying books, while the government was still using the late Roman cursive for the little writing that was needed. Agrestius however introduced the hand used in the imperial chancery and from c. 615, Gaul had a unified calligraphy policy. The first example of this embryonic Merovingian hand dates from 625 and is a document written on papyrus. In the next 50 years, the last major influence on Merovingian writing entered the picture: parchment. Papyrus, woven from the strips of plant pulp, had a natural grain to it, which scribes followed when writing lines of letters. Parchment, on the other hand, required the scribe to rule out straight lines before he began writing, which meant that the lines were much more regular. Also, copyists used reed pens, but the same Sicilians and Egyptians that introduced parchment brought with them the technology to make pens from quills, which held a much more exact point. Together these new materials had a very strong influence on the evolution of the Merovingian hand.

In Fig. A you see a Merovingian alphabet copied from the Luxeuil Lectionary, done at the height of the Merovingain era in the early 8th century. As shown, the letters have several shapes each, and boast a number of unexpected ligatures that were shunned by Carolingian scribes. Even after Charlemagne imposed the new style of writing created for him by Alcuin of York, beginning in 780, Merovingian continued to be used in the imperial chancery until the 12th century. The purpose of this harks back to its ancestor, the littera caelestia; again, the authorities were interested in preventing forgery as well as impressing the reader with the power and grandeur of the chancery. The evolution of the style was not yet complete, for the imperial scribes managed to neaten and straighten the letters while retaining, and in some cases increasing, their illegibility. (see figs. B and C)

As a final, practical note from the SCA scribe, a few works should be said on Merovingian illumination and book-format. Throughout the Merovingian dynasty, book production was at a serious nadir, so there are only a few examples of page-decoration; but they are similar enough to draw conclusions. Generally, illumination was reserved to colored and decorated initial letters (see figs. D, E, and F) which were executed in abstract patterns (often of Byzantine and Coptic origin) or in the forms of fish and birds. Almost universally, the only colors used were red, green and yellow, and the pigments were flat, thin washes. Often the figures were outlined in a contrasting color. Pages that began a volume or chapter usually demonstrated a hierarchy of letter-styles, a habit that survived well into the Carolingian era and beyond. The decorated initial was followed by two or three lines of drawn Roman capitals (quadrata) in red, and then widely spaced uncials for another two or three lines before the main body of the text. The same pattern can be seen today in sophisticated magazine spreads, where there is a main title to the story, followed by a subhead in much smaller type and a deck (as it is referred to) in italics.


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