Describing Handwriting, Part V: English Vernacular Minuscule

In the previous posts, I have been outlining a model for describing handwriting. As promised earlier, I now want to outline how this may work in practice. To do this, I wish to provide a first draft of a complete description of the letters, components and features of English Vernacular minuscule. As mentioned in Part II, there are several sources for terminology, and of course there are many others beyond that, particularly including those by Malcolm Parkes which David Ganz kindly reminded us of in his comment to Part I. It must be emphasised that this is simply a first draft based on Stokes, English Vernacular Script, and will undoubtedly need considerable refining. In particular, I use the terminology that I am familiar with, but in a future post I plan to produce a table of equivalent terms. For now I am more interested in the principles, though: is this a valid model? Please post comments below!

Components of Letters and Punctuation

These are all the components that a letter must have to be recognisable as such (what Parkes calls 'essential elements'):

a: bowl (also called bow or lobe), back
æ: a-component (comprising bowl), e-component (comprising eye, lower curve/bowl)
b: ascender, bowl
c: hook, bowl (or is this something different, e.g. a lower curve?)
d: bowl, ascender or back
e: eye (comprising hook, tongue), bowl (or is this something different, e.g. a lower curve?)
f: hook, tongue, descender or downstroke
g: mid-component or bowl (see below), tail
h: ascender, arch (comprising upper curve and also down-stroke/minim: see below)
i: minim
k: ascender, upper branch, lower branch
l: ascender
m: minim, middle arch, final arch
n: minim, arch [For minuscule only, but majuscule n is sometimes found in otherwise minuscule script]
o: bowl
p: bowl, descender
q: bowl, descender
r: Either minim and hook, or descender and arch (see below)
s: [See below]
t: top-stroke, bowl (or is this something different, e.g. a lower curve?)
thorn: bowl, ascender, descender
eth: bowl, back, cross-stroke
u: minims
wynn: descender, bowl
x: right-to-left stroke (comprising north-west and south-east branches), north-east branch, south-west branch
y: [See below]
z: top-stroke, diagonal stroke, bottom stroke (optional tail)
7: top stroke, descender (but is this descender the same as other descenders?)
punctus: point
punctus versus: point, comma
punctus elevatus: point, up-stroke
punctus interrogativus: point, top-stroke

Components of Allographs

These terms can undoubtedly be adjusted and standardised more; I put them here as a starting-point. Even here, though, there are problems, particularly with s and y, but also with f, g and r. This is because these letters can have drastically different forms, even in the Anglo-Saxon period, and so one cannot easily find components which are necessarily common to each. To resolve this we need to go to the level of allograph:

f Caroline: hook, tongue, down-stroke
f Insular: hook, tongue, minim
g Caroline: bowl, tail
g Insular: top-stroke, mid-component, g-tail
r Caroline: hook, down-stroke
r Insular: hook, descender
s round: upper curve, lower curve
s tall: hook, down-stroke
s Caroline: hook, down-stroke
s long: hook, down-stroke, descender
s low: hook, descender
y straight-limbed: upper left branch, right-to-left stroke (comprising upper right branch, y-tail)
y round: top-to-bottom stroke (comprising upper left branch, y-tail), upper right branch
y f-shaped: upper branch, lower branch, y-tail

Other allographs include the remaining distinctive letters of Caroline script, plus some others:

a Caroline: Also has a head
c horned: Also has a horn
e horned: Also has a horn
d Caroline: Has an ascender (not a back)
d Insular: Has a back (not an ascender)

You might reasonably ask why Caroline letter-forms are included in a description of Vernacular minuscule: the answer is simply that these forms appear often in otherwise Vernacular script and so need to be taken into account.


Some components have components themselves:

bowl: south-west quadrant
eye: hook, tongue
ascenders and minims: top-decoration
descender and minim: foot
back (of eth and insular d): tip
back (of a and æ): foot
arch: shoulder, downstroke, foot (I argue that the downstroke is not a minim for my per

The 'arch' is problematic but refers to the common part of h, m, n, and Insular r, including not just the top curve itself but also the full down-stroke and foot. In Vernacular minuscule the down-strokes here are not necessarily treated in the same way as minims and should not be considered as such (unlike Gothic Textura, for example).

General Features

These features can apply to any letter and (in principle) any stroke:

Pen: Thick/thin/medium width; blobby; flat/angled
Writing Angle: Upright, forward-leaning, backward-leaning
Rotundity: Angular, rounded
General Aspect: Messy, neat; narrow; spidery; bulging; heavy; shaded; level cue-height
Connectedness: Separate/conjoined/ligatured

Component features

These are features of specific components or sub-components:

Ascenders: long/short/minim-length; sway-backed; backward-leaning
Back (of eth and Insular d): Bilinear/45°/upright; long/short; straight/concave up/concave down/broken; backward-reaching
Back (of a and æ): Long, straight/round
Bowl: Concave left/concave right/angled south-west quadrant/round/square; horned; point-topped/flat-topped
Descenders: Turned left/curved/straight/tapering; foot/no foot; long/short/minim-length; angled forward/vertical/angled back (esp. relevant for 7)
Eye: Squinting/open
Foot: Angled up/angled down/horizontal/absent; long/short
Hook: Angled/flat/bulging/high; long/short; deeply split; looped
Mid-component (of Insular g): Angular; large/small; Hangs from left/middle/right
Minim curve: Shoulder angled/bulging/rounded; deeply split; downstroke rounded/straight; downstroke turned in/out
Tail (of g): On left/middle/right; narrow/wide/oblong/round/angular; open/closed/3/4 closed; tip horizontal/curved down/curved up
Tail (of y): Hooked/straight/curved
Cross-stroke (of eth): High; concave up/down; hooked down/up/no hook; through/not through
Tip (of back): Vertical/turned back/turned down/wedged/trailing left
Top treatment (of minims and ascenders): Vertically symmetric, horizontally symmetric, wedged, barbed, clubbed, approach-stroke, back-reaching, flat-topped, split, forked, tapering on left, blobby, none
Top Stroke: Convex/flat/~-shaped; left hooked up/down, rising; at cue-height/above cue-height; short/long; turned-up right
Tongue: Angled/horizontal/convex; long/short; turned down/turned up; rising; thick/thin; on left

Letter features

These are specific to particular letters. Arguably some (or even most) of these are allographs, but the distinction is a difficult one:

a: Caroline/semi-Caroline/cc/teardrop-shaped/round/square
æ: As for a and e
d: [Arguably round/upright (or Insular/Caroline), but these are probably best covered as allographs and via the back component.]
f: Caroline/Insular
g: 3-shaped/S-shaped (or make these features of the mid-component?)/Caroline
h: Caroline/Insular
k: c-shaped/arm up; descender
l: Round bottom/angled bottom
n: Majuscule/minuscule
r: R-shaped; Wulfstanian
s: Tall (or long) before t; tall (or long) before wynn; tall (or long) initial; tall (or long) with t only; tall (or long) in ligature with t only; tall high wedge; high round
t: Turned-up/down toe; closed
thorn: Predominant/initial/conventional
eth: Flagpole, predominant/initial/conventional
x: Bilinear/long southwest quadrant; three-stroke
y: Bilinear; dotted/undotted; high right (straight or round only); hooked right (straight or round only)
z: Bilinear, high, long southwest stroke; diagonal descender
7: High top right
punctus: On baseline/at mid-height/at cue-height

Again, there will undoubtedly be additions and changes to this list, but it should provide a useful starting-point. In the next post I hope to take this further by applying it to some more concrete examples.


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