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Insular Manuscripts: Paleography

Section 5: Insular Minuscules


The class of Insular script with the longest history, the widest range of uses, and the most varieties, is Insular minuscule. Insular minuscule developed in the seventh century in Ireland and over the succeeding centuries was taken over by the Anglo-Saxons for books below the grade of the great luxury biblical and liturgical books that were written in Uncial or Insular Half-Uncial. Insular minuscule was used in Ireland for both Latin and Irish-language texts until the end of the Middle Ages. In England, it was used for both Latin and Old English texts through the early tenth century, and thereafter for the vernacular only, until the Norman Conquest.

This manuscript of the Life of St. Columba by Adomnan was written around the year 700 in Iona, the center from which Irish monastic culture was spread to England in the seventh and eighth centuries. It exemplifies the early Irish version of Insular minuscule.

Written in Iona between 688 and 713

Schaffhausen, Stadtbibliothek, Gen. 1, p. 2. (

The alphabet is recognizably a descendant of late-antique Half-Uncial and shares the typical Insular letterforms we saw in Insular Half-Uncial. Note the d with upright ascender and bow not quite closed, so it might be mistaken for cl, and the minuscule forms of n and a. The g is the same Half-Uncial form seen both in early Half-Uncials and in the majuscule form of Half-Uncial used in the great Insular Bible manuscripts like Lindisfarne. Note the f with low-shouldered hasta and the r whose shoulder bends almost down to the baseline, so that it resembles an n.

segment of two words from insular manuscript prouidentia credi


two words from insular manuscript grecitas uero


clip from insular manuscript with two words et fundator

Note also the wedge-shaped finials on upright strokes, especially of d, p, and r. These wedges are typical of both Insular majuscule and Insular minuscule. In succeeding centuries in both England and Ireland, this script became more clearly minuscule and developed a pointed aspect, as both ascenders and descenders grew longer. Notably, f, r, and s acquired long, pointed descenders.

This manuscript is a Psalter with Old English glosses from the second quarter of the tenth century. An Anglo-Saxon form of Insular minuscule is used both for the main text, in Latin, and in a smaller version for the vernacular glosses between the lines. If you cast your eye over the page, you will see many long, spiky descenders hanging down from each line. These are the fs, rs, and ss.

Anglo-Saxon Minuscule, first quarter of the 10th century

The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, Junius 27, f. 66r.

Because of its exaggerated descenders and finer penwork, this script may seem far removed from that of the Iona manuscript of more than two centuries earlier. If you look at the letterforms, however, you will see the persistence of the typical Insular forms.

In these details, we can compare Insular r and s. The s basically has the same form as Half-Uncial tall s, but instead of sitting on the baseline, it has a long descender and its shoulder stays at minim-height. The r has the same long descender, but its shoulder bends over and comes all the way down to the baseline, so that without its descender it would resemble an n:






The f also has a long descender, as in Insular Half-Uncial, with the low cross-bar. This detail shows f, s, and r in close proximity:

fines terræ


The details above shows how a grouping of long-tailed fs, rs, and ss, plus other letters with descenders like p, contribute to the vertical and somewhat spiky aspect of a page of developed Insular minuscule.