A 15th-Century Alphabet

A 15th-Century Alphabet

By Will Noel

I’ve recently become interested in alphabets. I highlight a fifteenth century one here.  It is from a beautiful book of hours (prayer book) in the Cotsen Children’s Library from about 1490. 

Page from a book with an alphabet written in calligraphy
Page from Book of Hours (Use of Rome) with Inclusion of Primer, 1490. Cotsen Children’s Library Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts (ManuscriptsQ 46825).

Underneath the alphabet you will see the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer. In the book, this is followed by the Ave Maria. These are very basic prayers and exercises that are (only infrequently) found in books of hours, probably made for children. This must have been what attracted the book to Lloyd E. Cotsen ’50, who donated the Cotsen Children’s Library to us.

It’s a funny alphabet. In the first place, it doesn’t begin with an A, but with an illuminated cross: You clearly cross yourself before you begin the alphabet. So then you begin the alphabet, but with a stutter:  you have two consecutive a‘s.  (If anyone can tell me why, I would be grateful.) Then you get past the a‘s and run smoothly for a while: b, c, d, e, f, g, h. Then you have big I and little ifollowed by k and l.  Then you have two m‘s and two n‘s. The second version in each case is the one you use at the end of the word, when the terminal minim extends slightly below the line. O, p, and q are not problematic. Then there are two versions of r: a normal r and a “figure 2 r“–which was used after the letter o–and still appears on fancy dinner invitations.  Then you get two s‘s: tall s and short s. The rules for the use of these letters are not standard, but short s is used at the end of a word, and tall s at the beginning and in the middle (Thus in the line below, read “Pater noster qui es in…”) This is followed by t, and then you get big U and little u.  Then you get x, y, and z. 

I’m puzzling over what comes next. In many alphabets, you get scribal abbreviations for the letter combinations that occur frequently in Latin: et, con, and rum.  I am not at all sure what the two symbols are in this case.  They might be “rum“, and just possibly “us“.  But I’m not really sure.  Let me know if you have any ideas.  

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