Blog post

Corbie Abbey and today’s font

How Corbie Abbey's medieval manuscripts connect to today's fonts

First page of book inventory with text in Latin
Markus Greulich (opens in new window) (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin)

When you think of the French region of Picardy, most likely important cities such as Amiens, Beauvais, or Laon come to mind. Corbie is less known and it is not that easy to find even on 18th-century maps of northern France.

A map of the surroundings of Abbeville, Dourlens, Amiens, Corbie.

Nonetheless, Corbie was once very important, as testified by wonderful medieval manuscripts. How we write with lower case letters today is also connected to this place and especially to its former monastery: L’abbaye royale Saint-Pierre de Corbie.

Drawing of the Benedictine monastery in Corbie, Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Corbie

This Benedictine monastery was founded around 660 by Bathilda, the widow of Clovis II, King of Neustria and Burgundy. Its first abbot and monks came from Luxeuil Abbey, which had been founded in 590 by the Irish missionary St. Columbanus. Looking at 7th, 8th, and 9th century manuscripts from Luxeuil and Corbie you can still observe Irish influence, especially in the style of their illuminations. You discover Celtic ornaments – as here at the beginning of Psalm 1 and its initial B (of Beatus vir), made with interlaces common in Celtic art.

Two pages of a manuscript with the beginning of Psalm 1, Ms. 18, fol. 1v and 2r (Bibliothèques d’Amiens Metropole). On the left side illuminated initial:  letter 'B' decorated with ornaments and two figures inside of it.

The library at Corbie Abbey grew quite quickly. Some of its manuscripts have survived the centuries and are now kept in libraries in Amiens, Paris, Berlin, Rome and Saint Petersburg, among others.

Many of these manuscripts can be attributed with certainty to Corbie Abbey as they contain traces, like marks and/or inscriptions that link the book to the monastery. These can often be found at the beginning (e.g. ownership notes) or at the end of the book (in a colophon). Furthermore, there are also three medieval book inventories. These book inventories show the variety of books that were read in Corbie. In addition to books with theological content and books for worship and devotion, they also refer to several codices containing texts by ancient and late antique authors. Take, for example, this page of Corbie’s 11th-century book inventory: the left column lists the Categories of Aristotle (third entry), as well as several grammars of the Latin language or different titles by Boethius and Cicero.

Page from a book inventory with text in Latin

Even more important than the library of Corbie Abbey is its scriptorium – the place where monks copied these texts, using feather, ink and parchment. Even if it is hard to imagine, the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries saw exciting developments in Latin scripts. The monks of Corbie’s scriptorium experimented with different ways to write, as David Ganz (Professor Emeritus of Palaeography, King's College London) among others has shown. These experiments are still visible today – in the manuscripts written in Corbie.

One medieval script has become particularly important for the art of reading, not only during the Middle Ages, but also until today: the Carolingian (or Caroline) minuscule. For a long time, researchers believed that the Carolingian minuscule was developed in the immediate vicinity of Charlemagne and his court school as part of the educational reform of the 9th century. Recent research by Tino Licht (Professor of Latin Medieval Philology, University of Heidelberg) has brought into discussion that the Carolingian minuscule is a result of experimenting with different scripts. A Corbie manuscript from the second half of the 8th century – now preserved in the Berlin State Library – shows an amazing feature. While the manuscript begins on the first page with a script called Uncial, the second page is written in a different script: an early form of the Carolingian minuscule. There are three pages with this script before the script changes again to Uncial. The difference is very clear when you compare the pages side by side.

On the left page (fol. 2v): Carolingian minuscule. On the right page (fol. 3r): Uncial.

Manuscript pages with text in Latin

With the educational reform efforts of Charlemagne’s court school at the beginning of the 9th century, the Carolingian minuscule began its triumph through all of Central Europe. It would remain the most important script until the beginning of the 12th century, when it developed into pre-Gothic script. But why should we care about a script that was developed and used some thousand years ago? How are we connected to this script?

In the late 14th and 15th centuries, Renaissance humanists tried to find the best handwritten copies of texts from Classical Antiquity which they held in high esteem. While searching in different monasteries, they found old manuscripts written in Carolingian minuscule. This script is quite different to later medieval scripts. The pictures below show close-ups of Genesis 1:27 in two different manuscripts. The first was written in the middle of the 9th century using Carolingian minuscule. The second example is a copy from the last quarter of the 13th century written in a Gothic script. While the Gothic script of the later manuscript is very compressed and contains many abbreviations, the Carolingian minuscule appears very calm, rounded and regular. The words are written and spaced clearly.

The simplicity and clarity of the Carolingian minuscule fascinated the Renaissance humanists. They believed that this script must have been the script of antiquity and this is why the Carolingian minuscule became the model for the Humanistic minuscule. Some book printers took the Humanistic minuscule as inspiration for moveable type, which in the second half of the 15th century resulted in a font called Antiqua. This font had been used by the most important book printers of the Renaissance, such as the Venetian Aldus Manutius, who published this famous edition of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Franciscus Columna in 1499:

A page from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Franciscus Columna: on the top a woodcut illustration of a figure walking through a forest; below, text in Latin

The Antiqua font, used in Venice for printing in its most beautiful form, quickly spread across Europe and we can still observe some of its characteristics in 20th-century fonts like Times New Roman.

Text 'cum maximo terriculo dubitaua,' written in Antiqua font on the left and in Times New Roman font on the right.

This is a close-up of text from the printed page above and the same text typed in Times New Roman. It is striking how close these two scripts are even if the left one was used by the end of the 15th century the other in the late 20th (and in the 21st) century.

In this way, the lower case letters we use today are descendants of a script that the monks of Corbie experimented with more than 1200 years ago.

Further reading:

  • David Ganz, Corbie in the Carolingian renaissance, Sigmaringen: Thorbecke, 1990 (Beihefte der Francia, 20).
  • Tino Licht, „Die älteste karolingische Minuskel“, in: Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 47 (2012), p. 337-346.
  • Bernhard Bischoff, Latin palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Translated by Dáibhí ó Cróinin and David Ganz, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

This blog is part of the Art of Reading in the Middle Ages project which explores how medieval reading culture evolved and became a fundamental aspect of European culture.

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