Historic, Stylistic, and Cultural Periods

The Fragmenta Manuscripta collection contains manuscript fragments dating from the eighth through seventeenth centuries. This encompasses the medieval (c. 500-c. 1400) and Early Modern (c. 1350-c. 1700) historic periods. The collection has a few strengths worth describing in more detail. The following categorizes the manuscripts based on historic, stylistic, and cultural periods. If you want to explore the collection further, you can search by location, century, and language in Digital Scriptorium.



The Anglo-Saxon period in Britain began after the collapse of the Roman Empire (late fifth century) until around the year 1100. The Angles and the Saxons were two Germanic groups that settled in Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. In time, the groups formed a distinctive new culture. You might be familiar with the Anglo-Saxons because of the extraordinary archaeological discovery of a ship burial at Sutton Hoo. The excavation showed the Anglo-Saxons to be skilled metalworkers who lavished beautiful objects with multicolored glass and precious stones. Or perhaps you are familiar with the rich storytelling traditions of the Anglo-Saxons through the famous epic poem Beowulf. Fragmenta Manuscripta has four manuscript fragments that were produced in Britain or brought to Britain during this period. Significantly, our collection is one of only fourteen collections of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the United States.[1]

 The four Anglo-Saxon manuscript leaves in the collection show the connections between England, Ireland, and the continent during the early middle ages. FM 002 is written in Insular script, which developed in Ireland and was brought to England and the continent by traveling monks. Typical of Insular script are large initial letters followed by a gradual diminution of letters in a word. The other three manuscripts are written in Caroline minuscule, a type of script developed by the Carolingians that featured uniform, small, rounded letter forms, clear capital and lowercase letters, and spaces between words on the manuscript page. This script gradually replaced the Insular script in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, and is the basis of our writing today.[2]

Anglo-Norman and the Romanesque and Gothic styles

William the Conqueror led the Normans from western France to England and placed himself on the throne in 1066. The Normans assimilated with the Anglo-Saxons living in England so much so that scholars speak of an Anglo-Norman culture living in England during the twelfth century. The Normans and Anglo-Normans in England accelerated the spread of the pan-European style known as the Romanesque—so named by antiquarians in the nineteenth century because the architecture took on the rounded arches and vaulted spaces typical of the Romans. In manuscript illumination, figures tended to look segmented, with the parts of the body easily identifiable from one another, and backgrounds were abstract blocks of colors in bold blues, greens, and reds. Scribes continued to use the Caroline minuscule developed by the Carolingians in the ninth century, and letters and decorations are picked out in earthy browns and greens. Many manuscripts in this period also show a transition to the new Gothic bookhand that became the dominant formal bookhand in Europe during the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries.

Roman de la Rose

Identifier: Fragmenta Manuscripta 156

Date: 1300-1350

Contents: Jean de Meun and Guillaume de Lorris, Roman de la Rose

Language: French

Location: France

Script: Gothic

Bible, glossed

Identifier: Fragmenta Manuscripta 055

Date: 1250-1275

Contents: Bible, glossed

Language: Latin

Location: England

Script: Gothic

When Renaissance intellectuals looked back to the art of the period from about c. 1150-c. 1400 in the medieval west, they thought it looked barbaric and termed it Gothic after the names of the Germanic groups that moved throughout Europe during and after the fall of the Roman Empire. The term was never used by people living at that time, which is why some scholars avoid using it today. The architecture of this period was anything but barbaric. Cathedrals rose higher in the sky as stained-glass windows also increased in scale, letting more light into these vast spaces. In the figural arts, artists moved their attention to emphasize the human relationship to god. Figures became more naturalistic and solid, they swayed and moved in space as they twisted and interacted with one another. Regional styles vary their approach to Gothic art, but we tend to see a lot of short hair cuts that fall on either side of the face in tight curls following the popular court style of France that spread throughout northern Europe. We can see these types of figures in the illuminations of the Roman de la Rose (FM 156) and in the figures within the historiated initial watching the Ascension of Christ (FM 055). See manuscript decoration for more.

The script used in formal books is called blackletter, Gothic script, Gothic bookhand, Gothic minuscule, or Gothic textura. It developed from the Caroline minuscule with their small, uniform letters. Rather than the rounded forms of the Caroline minuscule, the Gothic script has tall, narrow letters-almost mimicking the pointed arches typical of Gothic cathedrals. The Gothic script is also squeezed together with letters blending into one another to fit as many words as possible onto each page. The letters are very black with pops of color in either red or blue. The Gothic script took on many different regional variations, which enables scholars to pinpoint approximate dates and regions where manuscripts were produced.

Other types of script existed. One type was a Gothic cursive script principally used in legal texts and documents that were prepared quickly. Sometimes known as a court hand, these scripts also had regional variations.

Early Modern (c. 1350- c. 1850)

One of the major historic and stylistic periods within the Early Modern category is the Renaissance (c. 1350- c. 1600). The dates for the beginning and ending of the Renaissance are arbitrary and vary from region to region. Renaissance means “rebirth,” and the period was so named because of the rebirth of classical ideals. In art, figures resembled classical models in their perfect proportions and naturalism. The text in manuscripts changed once again to resemble more classical forms. The dominant script was Humanistic minuscule, which resembled the Caroline minuscule in terms of the rounded letter forms and the more spacious layout of the words on the page. You can see examples of the Humanistic script, which endured throughout the Early Modern period, and the continuation of cursive hands in the examples below.

 This period is also significant for the production of the first printed books in Europe. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around the middle of the fifteenth century. The letterforms (the shapes of the letters) resembled the strokes used in medieval handwritten scripts. The printed book gradually replaced the need for the carefully handwritten and meticulously prepared manuscript—a fact that is well represented by the comparatively smaller number of manuscript fragments from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries than from earlier periods in Fragmenta Manuscripta.


[1] Helmut Gneuss and Michael Lapids (eds), Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A Bibliographical Handlist of Manuscripts and Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100 (Temple, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2001), for Indiana University, Lilly Library, Bloomington (796.3, 796.6), for Newberry Library, Chicago (808.7), for University of Missouri, Ellis Library, Columbia (809.8, 809.9, 810, 811), for The Scriptorium, Grand Haven, Michigan (829.8), for University of Kansas, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, Lawrence (117, 639, 436), for J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (817), for Yale University, Beinecke Library, New Haven (157, 857, 831.2, 858, 859, 146), for Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (860-866), for Public Library, New York (866.5), for Free Library, Philadelphia (857), for Princeton University Library (905), for Huntington Library, San Marino (934, 818.5), for University of Illinois Library, Urbana (938), for Folger Shakespeare Library,  Washington DC (943.2). And for more on Anglo-Saxon manuscripts see Elzbieta Temple, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, 900-1066, Volume 3 (London: Harvey Miller, 1976).

[2] For more on the development of this script, see the history of the Bible.


Brown, Michelle P. A Guide to Western Historical Scripts: From Antiquity to 1600. Toronto:University of Toronto Press, 1990.

de Hamel, Christopher. Making Medieval Manuscripts. Oxford: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2018.

“Handwriting Styles.” University of Nottingham, Manuscripts and Special Collections. Last Accessed October 20, 2020, https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/manuscriptsandspecialcollections/researchguidance/medievaldocuments/handwritingstyles.aspx.

Smith, Marc H. and Laura Light. Script, Primer 9. New York: Les Enluminures, 2015.

Temple, Elbieta.  Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, 900-1066. London: Harvey Miller, 1976.