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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

II. Runes and Manuscripts

§ 6. The Irish School of Writing

Not so, however, with the Irish school of writing in the north.

The Irish alphabet was founded on the Roman half-uncial hand, manuscripts of this type having been brought over to Ireland by missionaries, perhaps during the fifth century. Owing to the isolated position of the island and the consequent absence of extraneous influence, a strongly characteristic national hand developed, which ran its uninterrupted course down to the late Middle Ages. This hand was at first round in character and of great clearness, beauty and precision; but, at an early period, a modified, pointed variety of a minuscule type developed out of it, used for quicker and less ornamental writing.

In the seventh century Northumbria was Christianised by Irish missionaries, who founded monasteries and religious settlements throughout the north. What, then, more natural than that these zealous preachers of the Word should teach their disciples not only the Word itself, but also how to write it down in characters pleasing to the Almighty, and not in rude and uncouth signs which conveyed all the power and magic of the heathen gods? Thus it came to pass that the English of the north learnt the exquisite penmanship of the Irish, and proved themselves such apt pupils that they soon equalled their former masters. In fact, the earliest specimens of the Northumbrian hand can scarcely be distinguished from their Irish models.

In course of time, moreover, the English threw off the conventions and restraints which fettered the Irish hand and developed a truly national hand, which spread throughout England, and which, in grace of outline and correctness of stroke, even surpassed its prototype.

As might have been expected, the English adopted both the round and pointed varieties of their Irish teachers. One of the earliest and most beautiful examples of the former is The Book of Durham or The Lindisfarne Gospels, written about A.D. 700 by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne. And, as a specimen of the latter, may be mentioned a fine copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History in the University Library of Cambridge, written not long after 730, which possesses an additional interest as preserving one of the earliest pieces of poetry in the English language, The Hymn of Caedmon, in the original Northumbrian dialect. The pointed hand branched off into a number of local varieties and was extensively used down to the tenth century, when it became influenced by the French or Carolingian minuscule. Towards the end of the century all Latin MSS. were, as a matter of fact, written in foreign characters, whereas the English hand came to be exclusively used for writing in the vernacular. For instance, a Latin charter would have the body of the text in the French minuscule, but the English descriptions or boundaries of the property to be conveyed would be written in the native hand.

After the Conquest, the native hand gradually disappeared, the only traces of it left being the adoption by the foreign alphabets of the symbols [char], 3, [char] ([char]) to express the peculiarly English sounds for which they stood. The rune [char], however, fell into disuse about the beginning of the fourteenth century, its place having been taken by uu (vv) or [char]; while [char] (th) occurs occasionally as late as the end of the same century. Of far superior vitality were [char] and [char], the former bearing a charmed life throughout Middle English times, though, in the fifteenth century and later, [char] often appeared in the degenerated form of [char], while [char] was retained in order to represent spirant sounds, afterwards denoted by y or gh.

During the late twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the history of English handwriting was practically that of the various Latin hands of the French school. The fifteenth century finally witnessed the dissolution of the medieval bookhand of the minuscule type, the many varieties of it being apparent in the types used by the early printers. The legal or charter-hand, introduced with the Conquest, was, however, not superseded by the printing-presses, but ran an undisturbed though ever varying course down to the seventeenth century, when its place was taken by the modern current hand, fashioned on Italian models. A late variety still lingers on, however, in the so-called chancery-hand seen in the engraved writing of enrolments and patents.