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Insular Manuscripts: Paleography

Section 1: Historical Overview


“Insular” is the term used to describe the manuscript culture of the British Isles in the early Middle Ages, and of monastic houses founded by the Irish and Anglo-Saxons on the Continent in the same period. The term “Insular” is sometimes restricted to the period before the Viking attacks that began in the late eighth century, when Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England developed a shared monastic and artistic culture. However, for the purposes of understanding broad categories of scripts, it is useful to understand the scripts of England and Ireland in the tenth and eleventh centuries as developments of the same pre-Viking book culture. The scripts of the British Isles continue to share distinctive letterforms and abbreviations until the advent of international Gothic book culture in the high Middle Ages.

Both Ireland (with Irish parts of southwest Scotland) and England received the Latin script and the Latin language with conversion to Christianity. The scripts developed in each country reflect the range of manuscripts the Irish and English would have seen in the early decades of their acquisition of Christian culture. Ireland had not been part of the Roman empire, but was converted in the fifth century from Britain, which had a long history of Roman administration. We can deduce from later developments in Irish script and from what we know of book production and learned culture in the sub-Roman world of the fifth and sixth centuries that the Irish encountered both Christian books in Half-Uncial script, probably from the Continent, and Later Roman Cursive together with an ancient system of abbreviations, most likely directly from sub-Roman Britain. From these sources, the Irish developed a distinctive, high-grade form of Half-Uncial, as well as a minuscule bookhand that shows Half-Uncial as well as Later Roman Cursive influences. We have surviving manuscripts in these scripts beginning in the 7th century.

Irish Scripts

Irish Minuscule, ca. 700

Schaffhausen, Stadtbibliothek, Gen. 1, p. 2. (www.e‑

Insular Half-Uncial, 8th century

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 51, p. 8. (www.e‑

The areas of Britain that became England, meanwhile, were settled from the fifth century by pagan Germanic tribes who, once they were settled in Britain, came to be known as the Anglo-Saxons. The Romano-British tradition of Christian Latin culture was entirely severed with the Germanic invasions, and the Anglo-Saxons had to be converted afresh. The reintroduction of Christianity to what was now Anglo-Saxon England came from two directions, with two different script traditions. Irish monks based at Iona founded monasteries across the north of England, notably at Lindisfarne, and in these places the majuscule and minuscule scripts developed by the Irish were practiced and further developed, together with a hybrid Celtic-Germanic style of decoration. At the same time, certain ecclesiastical centers in England had particularly close ties with Rome and imitated Roman Uncial books. The center of Roman influence in the south of England was Canterbury, seat of Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, who was sent by the pope to convert the Anglo-Saxons at the end of the sixth century, and his successors. In northern England at the turn of the eighth century, the abbot of the twin monastic foundation of Wearmouth and Jarrow sought out Roman models for the book arts. These Roman-influenced centers produced high-grade Uncial manuscripts in the Italian style in the 7th and early 8th centuries, while using Insular minuscule as inherited from Ireland for more ordinary books.

Insular Half-Uncial written in England, ca. 700

© The British Library Board, Cotton Nero D IV, f. 34r.

Uncials written in England, ca. 700

© The British Library Board, ADD. 89000, f. 1r.

Broadly speaking, we can distinguish three types of scripts used in early medieval Ireland and England:

  • a distinctive, high-grade form of Half-Uncial with some characteristics of Uncial, which was used in Ireland and in centers of Irish cultural influence in England
  • Uncials written in England in the 7th and 8th centuries in imitation of Italian books
  • a minuscule script with many of the letterforms of Half-Uncial and some distinctive letterforms and abbreviations not used elsewhere.

Latin writing in the early medieval British Isles shows the effects of the fact that both the Irish and the Anglo-Saxons learned Latin from books, as an entirely foreign language. Their manuscripts consequently contain many more aids to the reader who may be struggling to comprehend a foreign language.