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Gothic Cursiva: Paleography

Section 2: Cursiva Features

Key identifying features

The identifying features of Cursiva are a single-story a; loops on the ascenders of b h k l; and descenders on f and the straight or long (formerly “tall”) version of s.

Influence of documentary cursives and Textualis

The looped ascenders are a product of the origin of these scripts in documentary cursives, where loops are part of a ductus that joins letters to one another (in the manner of the modern cursive or “joined up” writing). In Cursiva, the loops may serve a real function, or they may be purely decorative. In general, Cursiva reduces the number of ligatures used in documentary cursives, and the more formal the Cursiva, the more likely that the loops are decorative and do not serve to link one letter to another.

Cursiva was always under the influence of Textualis. Scribes who wrote one also wrote the other, and could write several varieties of either script. Textualis was often used for headings in manuscripts whose main text was in Cursiva, rather in the way that Uncial was used in the early Middle Ages as headers for texts in minuscule. We see the influence of Textualis on the earliest and latest varieties of Cursiva. In the earliest Cursiva of England, known as Anglicana, a two-story a was normal — but since loops on ascenders and f and s with descenders were present, we still call Anglicana a variety of Cursiva. On the other end of the period, the most formal 15th-century varieties of Cursiva tend to show a greater influence of Textualis in ductus (with letters made of many more separate strokes) and in lateral compression. Readers should be prepared to see a great range of scribal practice within this class of script.


The aspect of Cursiva can vary a great deal with the level of formality and from variety to variety, but there are some constants. Compared to Textualis, Cursiva generally has little lateral compression, a smaller proportional minim-height (and hence more space between the lines). Because of the loops and descenders, it tends to appear both loopy and pointy. Some Cursivas are markedly vertical and others are characterized by competing diagonal strokes.

Let us see what these features look like in some manuscript examples.

manuscript page from The British Library showing both cursive and cursiva
© The British Library Board, Harley 866, f. 17r.

The manuscript above is an English copy of Alain de Lille’s De planctu naturae. The script is quite informal, and is both cursive, in the sense of being written with few lifts of the pen, and Cursiva, because it has (mostly) single-story a, looped ascenders, and f and s with long descenders. Even if you can’t read the script, which is very challenging even if you read Latin, you can see the loops and the long, pointy descenders, which contribute to the script’s aspect.

detail of three lines from the Harley 866 manuscript above

The lines above read:
[I]N lac(ri)mas risus in luctus gaudia verto
In planctu(m) plausus in lac(ri)mosa iocos.

Try matching up the letters in the transcription to those in the image. (The first line appears to start with a big N, because the I of the word IN is in fact the large red and blue initial that you can see in the larger image above.)

S is long in the middle of words, where in earlier minuscules you'd expect it to be tall (i.e., to sit on the baseline), and you can see that it is a strong diagonal amid the other letters. You will see the loops on l, and also on d, whose loop turns to the left and crosses back around over itself. In lacrimas, lacrimosa, and gaudia, the scribe uses the two-story a, often quite tall, which is characteristic of the English variety of Cursiva known as Anglicana. He uses the standard Cursiva single-story a for the second a in lacrimas and lacrimosa, and in planctum and plausus in the second line.

Features that this script shares with Textualis include the 2-shaped r in verto at the end of the first line, and abundant minim-confusion. The minim-rich letters i n m u are slanting here, and they are joined to adjacent letters, which makes it even harder to distinguish them. Look at risus in line 1: we have an r that looks like a deep v, joined to a following i, which leads into a long s, followed by a u, followed by a round s, which in this script can look a lot like a capital B.

This mid-15th-century French or Flemish manuscript, by contrast, is much more formal and much more influenced by Textualis. The letters and their parts are more regular than in the less-formal English manuscript above. But it still has the features that qualify it as Cursiva: single-story a, looped ascenders, and f and s with long descenders.

detail of two lines from a French or Flemish manuscript
Geneva, Bibliothèque de Genève, MS fr. 1/2, 1rb, ll. 9-10. (

The text here reads:
Et data e(st) uiro pro co(n)sorte socia colleterali
Que si sibi in honore collata humilit(er) p(re)stitisset

You can see three looped ascenders on l in colleterali (corrected to collaterali with a small superscript a), and on h and l in several words in the second line.

The long s jumps out of the page because it is made with an extra-dark, extra-thick stroke with a very pointy descender. This is characteristically French or Flemish and is typical of the high-grade regional variety of Cursiva known as Bastarda.

Textualis-influenced features here include lateral compression; the shape of the d; systematic use of biting or fusion, as in the da of data and the oc of socia; and 2-shaped r after round letters, as in consorte and honore.

The next manuscript is a very formal Cursiva, with an even more marked use of the dark, thickened, pointy, and diagonal f and s. This manuscript is in French and was written during the first half of the 15th century. If you explore the page, you will see many decorative loops and flourishes, and the aspectual effects of the strong, dark diagonals.

Geneva, Bibliothèque de Genève, MS fr. 1/2, 1r. (

If you zoom out, you can see how even though the language is vernacular and the script is Cursiva, the page layout features are exactly what you would expect from a manuscript in Textualis: long columns, visible ruling, and the letters floating between the two ruled lines.

If you are getting eyestrain from trying to pick out letters in these scripts, then you will sympathize with the Italian scholars who were working on reviving Caroline Minuscule around the time the manuscripts above were written. Click ahead to go to the Humanist Paleography lesson to learn about the reformed minuscule and cursive scripts of 15th-century Italian scholars.