Old English Letters

old english letters

Every antiquarian will eventually come across a book written in old English letters. The script, developed in the Middle Ages, is beautiful but often difficult to read without an understanding of how the letters were formed.

Development of Old English Script

Old English developed over a period of time. The University of Michigan reports that the Irish missionaries brought the style to the Anglo-Saxons during the conversion of the northern kingdoms. These scripts were used in the monastaries to translate and copy pages of the Bible.

There were three different styles of writing. Usually one form was used for formal documents only while another could be used for either formal Lating or the everyday speech of the people.

  • Half-unicial was used for formal Latin.
  • Miniscule was used for either Latin or the common vernacular.
  • Caroline miniscule, developed during the 900s, was later used for Latin as well.

Over time these three styles developed into the beautiful Old English script that people admire today.

The alphabet had 24 letters instead of the 26 that the modern English alphabet contains. The "i" and "j" were used interchangeably as were the "u" and the "v". In addition "ye" was used to represent the "th" sound. Often "the" was written as "ye".

Old English Letters is a fascinating website that is a treasure trove of interesting information about the letters. Apparently there were no rules for punctuation during the Middle Ages; scribes added punctuation as they saw fit, or not at all. Often the period at the end of a sentence is located above the baseline rather than on the line itself as in modern script. Even the way that words were spaced was inconsistent. Often several small words would be run together, or prepositions and adverbs are attached to the end of words. Sometimes compound words are given a space in the middle, or there is an added division at the syllable.

Use of Old English in Antique Books

Scribes used these letters to translate the Bible and other important Latin writings. The letters would be meticulously handwritten on calfskin vellum and then the vellum was sewn together in book form. The books could take years to create because of all the painstaking labor that went into them. Few books were available and the ones that were available were expensive. Not very many people were able to read anyway; the books were usually owned by kings and religious leaders who could afford these beautiful luxuries.

Illuminated Letters

The pages were often decorated with an even more embellished form of Old English called illumination, so named because the letters were detailed with gold leaf and colored inks in such a way as to mimic a stained glass window with light shining through it. Illuminated letters would be used for the first letter of the first word of a page or paragraph. The letter was larger than the rest of the letters and had a distinct color. Gold leaf was strategically applied to help give the glowing effect admired by so many.

Images were added and might be entwined around the letter or in the letter. Some manuscripts have illuminated letters that are designed from the image, for example a tree turned into the letter "T". Common images were:

  • Trees
  • Flowers
  • Vines
  • Adam and Eve
  • Biblical events
  • Animals, especially deer

Illumination had been used for centuries. The first known use was by the Egyptians in 1310 B.C. according to Amy E Bruce in her book, Illuminations: A lesson in the Art of Illuminated Letters. Over time other civilizations adopted the use of illuminations for important documents. The practice was embraced by the Irish and English scribes who produced what is considered to be some of the most beautiful work in the world.

All of the work of translating and transcribing, including illumination, was done by monks in the monasteries. The scribe would translate and form the Old English script and then the illuminator would create the illuminations and other decorations on the page.


Books printed before 1501 are called incunabula. Gutenberg's Bible is an example. These books can still be purchased but are quite expensive. Using a good book search may turn up a title or two but most often you will need to find someone that specializes in rare books to search for you.

Old English in Modern Use

Newer books have also been printed using blackletter or old English letter script. For instance, there are the small presses associated with the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century in England such as Ashenden, Doves, Kelmscott and Vale. The style is currently used in a variety of ways from tattoos to the decorative headings of certificates.

Development of the Printing Press

Johannes Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany in the late 1300s and died in 1468. He invented a method of printing with movable type that made literature widely available for the first time and helped usher in the Renaissance's rebirth of art and literature.

In 1455, Gutenberg printed his famous Bible in the Gothic-style medieval type. It is in Latin, in three volumes, and each page has two columns with 42 lines per column. There are still 40 Bibles in existence and The British Library has two. The script style is technically called textura because the black letters create a textured cloth effect.

The development of the printing press meant that books could be made more quickly and thus would be affordable to more people. While many of the books had decorative letters, the printing press could not replicate the beauty of the illuminations that decorated the hand written tomes.

Collecting Old English Script

While it is unlikely that you will be able to add an original illuminated manuscript to your collection, you can find plenty of affordable books and Ephemera with both illumination and Old English letters. Postcards, newspapers, and books from the Victorian era are usually good sources for this beautiful type of print.

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Old English Letters