Scriptio continua

The practice of the late Latin scripts often involved writing without any breaks between the words or sentences. This writing mode is known with the definition of scriptio continua, which means ‘continuous writing’.


In the previous example, which is in uncial script, we can see et nunc praeceptum hoc in the first two rows, with no spaces between the words. However, the medieval manuscripts often show the divisions between the words indicated by dashes.

During the preparation of a manuscript, it was often useful to be able to shorten the frequently used words or even sequences of letters. In the manuscripts from the early Middle Ages, the range of abbreviations in use tends to be relatively small. The following figure shows the complete page of the manuscript from which the few preceding lines are taken (the original page is available on the British Library web-site, where you can see some examples of the most common medieval abbreviations used:

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 11.37.25

At the end of line 6 and 7, the original amanuensis wrote  and ī to indicate non and in. On line 12, we can see ō to indicate the syllable om into the word omnipotens and on line 19 uestrā represents uestram. The use of a dash above the symbol of a vowel is quite common, and was used to indicate the presence of a further character, usually n or m; that dash is often referred to as ‘suspension sign’. Another amanuensis then added n above the first two suspension signs. While the aim of that amanuensis was to clarify the meaning of those dashes, their use continued during the entire Middle Ages. In addition to the suspension signs, the only other abbreviation in this folio is the form dms with a dash above it, to represent the Latin word dominus. Since the texts written by Christian amanuensis often referred to the Lord (God), that Latin word was usually shortened as dms.

As the Middle Ages moved forward, more complex shortening modes were devised, especially to write in Latin. Some of those abbreviations were also applied to the written English, as shown in the figure below, taken from a manuscript of the British Library which is a copy of a poem dedicated to the Winchester bishop, William Waynflete. In addition to the suspension sign on line 3, we can also see a number of other abbreviations, as listed below.

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 12.07.55

 Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 12.14.10 denotes and
 Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 12.18.18 denotes ur, for example in flour (flower), as in:  Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 12.19.57
 Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 12.20.04 denotes per/par, as in fperfyghtnesse:  Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 12.20.10
 Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 12.20.17 denotes er, as in reuerence:  Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 12.20.23


Some of the abbreviations used in writing also appear in the early printed books. For example, we can see the dash through the descending portion of p in percid (pierced) on line 2 of the Caxton first edition of the Canterbury Tales:



In this figure, we can also see a further abbreviation: the word after percid is ‘the’, but the printed form uses the thorn character from the Anglo-Saxon, with a small e above. The thorn usually stands for the sound pronounced with th in the written modern English. In some of the early printed books, the thorn was often replaced by y, maybe because the thorn was not present as a typographical character. Such use of y instead of the thorn led to the use of ye to indicate ‘the’ in some intentionally archaic contexts, for example on the sign of the pub shown below:


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