Walters exhibits medieval basis of modern writing


Every day we write something, yet we never stop to think why we write each individual letter the way we do, or why we put the letters together to form words the way we do. Every day we read something, yet we never stop to think why the printing we read looks the way it does.

Some answers, which go back to the Middle Ages, are to be found in "Medieval Writing and Calligraphy" at the Walters Art Gallery. This latest manuscript-gallery exhibit proves a lot more interesting than one might expect, in part because it has been related to modern-day practices through its text and labels.

As they explain, the practice in the Roman Empire was to write everything in capitals, but this system eventually broke down and there developed what is known as minuscule scripts, in which letters are of different heights, as opposed to majuscule -- all capitals of the same height.

At the time of Charlemagne (about 800), a standard script called Carolingian minuscule emerged. But it was superseded by the more vertical Gothic script; this being laborious, however, it was used for important texts and what is known as cursive handwriting developed for other purposes. In the cursive hand, loops and other connectors are used between letters, so the hand does not have to leave the page as often. Thus came into being the way we write in longhand today.

Along came the Renaissance, with its interest in antiquity, and scholars rediscovered older texts written in a script they took to be ancient but that was actually Carolingian. As it was easier to read than other scripts of the time, it was revived, and became the basis of modern-day typefaces. In its turn this script, now called humanistic, led to the development of a humanistic cursive script, the basis of modern-day italic print.

All of these developments are illustrated, of course, with examples from the Walters' manuscript collection. An 11th century German gospel book reveals Carolingian minuscule, which is indeed remarkably clear and close to modern-day print, considering its age. The Gothic scriptis shown most notably in an English 14th century Psalter; it looks handsome, but the similarity of the letters makes it difficult to read.

As a humorous note, an example of a scribe's mistake appears nearby. An English late 13th century book of hours shows a page on which the scribe originally left out a line of text. Rather than do the page over, he added the line at the bottom, and an illustration shows a monk scrambling up the side of the page to point to where the line should be.

As an example of humanistic minuscule, we have a Latin translation of a Hellenistic text in a book that dates to 1475. It's not surprising that the print medium then in its infancy should have adapted a currently popular script.

The show ends with examples of Greek writing, as a sensible complement to the Latin texts elsewhere. But it might have been even more enlightening, for a contemporary audience, to include samples of modern printing and handwriting, to show specifically how old styles have carried down to the present day.


What: "Medieval Writing and Calligraphy"

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through Jan. 16.

Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, free to students and those 18 and under.

Call: (410) 547-9000.

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