Before we get started on our whirlwind tour of Medieval Scripts and their roots, I encourage you to enjoy the above BBC clip on the Codex Sinaiticus. It is believed to be the oldest extant (surviving) copy of the Bible — dated c 330-360 CE from Palestine or Egypt.

To put Codex Sinaiticus in context, Constantine’s Battle of Milvian Bridge — where he had his famous vision assuring him that, by the sign of Chi Rho, he would win the battle and sole rulership of the Roman Empire — took place in 312 CE.

That’s when the Roman Empire converted, en masse, to Christianity.

Constantine died in 337 CE.

Codex Sinaiticus is handwritten on vellum with Greek uncial capitals, in four columns a page with 48 lines to a column (mostly), for a total of 4 million individual uncial letters.

Before we go forward from here, let’s go back a bit: to the roots of the Roman Alphabet.

Some time during the 7th c BC the Romans are thought to have adopted an alphabetical concept by combining an unfinished Greek alphabet and a finished Etruscan alphabet.

I’ve dug up an image of longest Etruscan text we know of, Liber Linteus, from the 3rd century BC — quite a bit later than the Romans claim to have had their hybrid up and running, but there you go, that’s what we have.

It’s on linen and survived because it was used to wrap a mummy — in Ptolemaic Egypt (that chunk of Alexander the Great’s Empire that Cleopatra was in charge of when Caesar’s nephew Augustus annexed it in 27 BC). Alexander the Great died in the 4th century BC (323 BC).

We also include, of course, a picture of the mummy.

The earliest Etruscan inscriptions date from 700 BC. The Etruscans had their heyday in and around what is now Western Umbria in modern Tuscany.

The example we have for you of the ancient Greek alphabet is from the Rosetta Stone — which dates from the second century BC (196 BC) and was also preserved in Egypt. There are three chunks of text on the stele, or stone, forming a bridge between Egyptian Hieroglyphs and ancient Greek. The middle chunk is in Demotic – Cleopatra’s alphabet. Included in the picture of the stone, as it is displayed in the British Museum, is a close up of the Greek lettering.

Jumping forward now, this time to between 600 and 850 CE, for the Insular script, allegedly invented in Ireland and spread to Anglo-Saxon England and continental Europe by Irish missionaries. While we’re going through all this trouble to put everything in context, it’s worth flagging 800 CE, when Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor.

The most famous example of this celebrated script is indubitably The Book of Kells, but the oldest extant example is the Book of Durrow – thought to have been created between 650 and 700 CE (predating the Book of Kells by over a century).

The Book of Durrow is the oldest extant complete illuminated Insular gospel book. It is written in majuscule insular script – aka block capitals.


731, and the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastic History of the English People. As the name might suggest, the manuscript is a history of England’s early church and, in particular, the clash between Rome’s Christianity and Ireland‘s. This involved mostly disagreements about when they were going to celebrate Easter, how they were going to cut their hair, and how they were going to say they were sorry.

There you go, 731 in a nutshell. The image we’ve grabbed for the slide show is from The Saint Petersburg Bede. It features the Europe’s earliest historiated initial.

Moving forward again to not quite a century and a half later and we’re looking at The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, circa 871 CE — the year Alfred the Great ascended to the throne while England was busy trying to fight off Vikings.

To put that in context, this is just 26 years after different Vikings sacked Paris in 845 — after which they settled in Normandy before gathering the momentum they would need to invade England in 1066.

While the earliest recorded event in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is Caesar’s invasions of Britain in 60 BC, the original manuscript was created in the 9th century, during the Reign of Alfred the Great (871-899), after which copies were made and distributed all across England. The example we’ve grabbed is from the Abbington II chronicle.

And finally, for our last exhibit, the Malmesbury Bible and the infamous blackletter, also known as Gothic script.

The Malmesbury Bible is a Latin Bible from the early 15th century (1407) on display in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England.

The Bible was hand written in Belgium, by Gerard Brils, for reading aloud in a monastery.


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