The Carolingian writing style was first established by the Carolingian Empire, an Empire which spanned France, Germany, northern Italy, northern Spain and later Bohemia. It existed and expanded during Charlemagne’s reign (768-814) but did not survive long after his death. During his reign, he established representatives of the state in each region but maintained control and uniformity throughout his empire by holding annual assemblies. He introduced many reforms; most notably in education and religion.
A significant part of Charlemagne’s educative reforms was the introduction of a standardised writing style; the Carolingian style. This was a crucial act both then and now as it is this style which establishes Charlemagne firmly in the history and study of palaeography as it forms the basis of our modern writing style today. Its purpose was twofold; it was designed to make writing easier to read and much quicker to produce. Its initial style can be characterised by the large, rotund characters, vertical ascenders and descenders (often clubbed) and the wide gaps between the words. The latter definitely distinguishes it from the likes of other writing styles at the time when words were often difficult to separate due to their proximity to one another.
There are a substantial number of Anglo-Saxon characters in the Carolingian writing. This is because Charlemagne believed that the Anglo-Saxons held superior literary and literacy skills and so wished to ameliorate the Empire’s literary standing by commissioning certain great scholars to reside in and influence his establishments. For example, it is known that he commissioned Alcuin to visit his own court. This suggests that the presence of Anglo-Saxon characters is due to the influence of Anglo-Saxon scholars.
In the image below, quarto 28 in the Worcester Cathedral Library, the writing style is that of Carolingian miniscule. This scribe has an unsteady hand, however, as one can see that the ascenders and descenders tend to tremble slightly and are not exactly vertical (as encircled on image). This is a quarto from Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiastica.
Figure 1 Quarto 28, Eusebius' Historia Ecclesiastica. S.X This image is copyright the Dean and Chpater of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
This writing style was introduced to England in the mid 10th century. Potential reasons for its transference from the Continent to England could be due to associations between great libraries of England and the Continent but also the travelling of monks. We know that one monk (and later Bishop of Worcester), Saint Oswald, departed for Fleury monastery, as he was in search of a better monastic life, and returned in 958. There are two early manuscripts which originate from the Continent in Worcester Cathedral Library, one of which is pictured above, and it is likely that they travelled along with Oswald on his return to England. Thus, it is primarily through these two means which the Carolingian style was brought to England, copied by scribes and henceforth, instigated as a popular writing style in the English monasteries and establishments.
Since its establishment in England, the Carolingian writing style underwent some major alterations; most noticeably were the gradation from large to small characters and the reducing spaces between the words. In the two images below one can see these alterations embodied.
Figure 2 Folio 173, Sacramentary. S.XI 1/4 This image is copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
The differences between the above and below images reveal the transformation of the Anglo-Caroline hand. Figure 2 illustrates a skilled Anglo-Caroline scribing hand, scribed in the first quarter of the 11th century whereas Figure 3 depicts an English protogothic hand with some features of Anglo-Caroline, dating from the 12th century. The latter has undergone numerous alterations in its scribing hand; the characters, while equally rounded, are much closer to one another and have been scribed with a thicker nib. Furthermore, there is less space between the words and the lines, rendering the page to have a much more filled visual aspect.
Figure 3 Folio 92, Homilarium. S.XII This image is copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
Regardless of these alterations, one can see the contingencies this writing style has with the original Carolingian style and also with our modern way of scribing letters; a fundamentally rotund character style and proximity of words. The way we write today is founded upon this style - although we might hope it is in a more legible manner!