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Hi everyone and welcome back for another book review.

What better way to introduce today’s book than with the following quotation from the Preface of the book:

This book was born of the frustration of looking for an answer and not finding it; or finding, after long search, an answer so elementary as to be inadequate or so complex as to be incomprehensible.

And the author continues to explain that his desire to improve his own lettering lead him to realization that the books that touch on medieval calligraphy are basically either too brief or too complex. So he set out to write a book that would be easy to understand and learn from, containing all the scripts that he believes best represent medieval calligraphy, a book with history of evolution of the alphabets and the background on the scribes, their world and how the writing changed over the course of a thousand years. A book enabling the student to learn the scripts as his medieval predecessor did.

The books on calligraphy I’ve read never attempted to create such context for any particular alphabet they taught and explained, nor they provided sufficient information on the period in which the alphabet originated. In my opinion, this is the biggest downside of modern instructional books in general. Fortunately, there are a few exceptions from time to time, and Medieval Calligraphy is one of them.

Medieval Calligraphy, Its History and Technique was first published in 1980. The edition I own was first reprinted from the original by Dover in 1989. As far as I’m aware it’s remained in print ever since. Despite the fact it is undoubtedly a book for very narrow audience. Calligraphy is indeed becoming more and more popular in the recent years – but it’s not necessarily the case with medieval calligraphy. I personally enjoy both calligraphy and history – and there are plenty of remainders of the medieval culture across my country – and so both aspects of the book do appeal to me very much.

As the subtitle of the book says the purpose of the book is twofold. First and foremost it tells the “story” of medieval scripts and their history, their development and what changes there occurred among the individual styles and why. This by itself is quite fascinating but there’s more. The other goal of the book is to demonstrate and teach how to recreate the scripts, how to learn the technique of writing these medieval alphabets, so long-forgotten, yet as fascinating and interesting as ever.

The chapter on History is well written and interesting, complemented with numerous reproductions of genuine medieval texts. It explains all the terms that are used (and misused) in the calligraphy world. The second part of the book on Technique contains thirteen main, significant scripts, sorted chronologically. This chapter begins with Roman Rustic script, followed by Uncial, Artificial Uncial, Roman Half-Uncial, Insular Majuscule, Insular Minuscule, Luxeuil Minuscule, Carolingian Minuscule, Early Gothic, Gothic Textura Quadrata, Gothic Textura Prescisus Vel Sine Pedibus and finally Gothic Littera Bastarda. Each script is supplemented with brief history, again with numerous genuine photographed samples of the script and with detailed instructions on how to achieve the best results in reproducing any given alphabet by hand. The instructions are clear and thorough. Nothing left unexplained yet they do not overwhelm. The book also touches on page layout, something very important yet often overlooked. Separate chapters are also dedicated to writing medieval numbers, materials required/recommended for writing the alphabets and finally resources. There is also a complete list of references if more in-depth study is desired.

As far as the actual instructions go the book does deliver. They are easy to follow but it’s good to remember that anything resembling decent calligraphy can be produced only after long hours of diligent practice and repetition. The book provides good overview of the forms and how to draw them but it’s just the very first step of any one’s individual practice.

Roman Rustic on the archway of the Nitra castle
Roman Rustic on the archway of the Nitra castle

When talking about this particular book I cannot but mention my trip to Nitra conducted at the time of reading the book. Nitra is a city with very rich history and a very old castle which was first inhabited in Stone Age. The vast collection of scriptures archived throughout the centuries on the castle had been burned numerous times by enemies besieging the castle but some have fortunately survived to this day. It’s been a great fun to look and study the many samples exhibited (although they were only reproductions, the originals are stored in prestigious libraries and museums throughout Europe), written in all sorts of medieval scripts.

The one script not mentioned in the book since it was specific to my country is Glagolitsa (called Hlaholika in Slovak), which is the oldest known Slavic alphabet. Even though not as old as the Roman Rustic or few other scripts mentioned in the book, it bears a great significance to Slovak people as it’s been our first official recorded alphabet (9th century). Glagolitic manuscripts are especially beautiful, in my opinion, as far as the design and shape of the letters go and seeing books filled with these little gems (or even just loose sheets as shows below) had a profound effect on me. They look joyous and alive. Nothing like what you’d expect from a script used eleven centuries ago! I’m showing here a pic I snapped an the museum just to show an example since it really is a fun script, but definitely search for more close-up pictures if you’re interested.

An example of Hlaholika
An example of Hlaholika

The book is without a doubt a result of hard work. And of the highest quality. It complemented my trip exceptionally. I had been reading it at the time of my trip and so the effect was naturally multiplied. If you are into this sort of thing I definitely recommend you to pick it up, give it a go and make a trip to a castle or a museum where you can see these manuscripts with your own eyes. Even if that is not possible, the book is still a great value and a worthy read.

-Daniel

2 Comments

  1. Carl Ashcroft February 29, 2016 at 18:32

    Good calligraphic marks can really enliven a painting – I should practice them a lot more than I do :0(

    Reply
    1. Daniel Novotny Art February 29, 2016 at 20:22

      Yes I agree with you completely Carl. Calligraphy is beautiful whether in painting or writing but it does require so much practice and concentrated effort!

      Reply

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