The Evolution of the Chancery Hand

By Geoffrey Ebbage
Date Added: 17/07/2009


This article was written in consultation with Sir Sydney Cockerell, Sir Francis Meynell, Wilfrid Blunt and Stanley Morison.

Italic handwriting is the modernised version of the Chancery hand which was first perfected by Roman scribes in the early part of the sixteenth century.

The capital letters of italic handwriting are based on the classical letters of Roman inscriptions of the first century A.D., but the small letters have simplified and more easily executed forms which gradually developed in the course of centuries from the same Roman letters under the influences of economy of space and fluency and speed in writing.

The development of the small letters passed through many inter- mediate stages, and the history is a long and complicated one, but there were two definite epochs which are of paramount importance.

In the year 789 A.D. Charlemagne ordered a revision of all the books in use in the churches throughout his dominions. The work was supervised by the English scholar Alcuin. It was only fitting that the pre-eminent handwriting of the time should have been chosen for such an important task, and it was inevitable that the use of the hand so selected should spread. The ultimate success, however, of what is now known as the Caroline hand was very much greater and more lasting, for it became the progenitor of all subsequent scripts of the Western World. For about three hundred years it was the predominant writing of Western Europe, but during the twelfth century more compressed and angular versions began to preponderate, and by the fourteenth century had ousted Alcuin's generous characters.

Towards the end of the fourteenth century, the great artistic and literary revival known as the Italian Renascence began. The humanist leaders of the movement thought the current handwriting uncouth, and called it 'gothic' - meaning literally barbarous. Their literary researches led them to the examination of a large number of manuscripts which had long lain forgotten in the libraries of Western Europe, and among them they found many written in an eleventh century version of the Caroline hand which was outstanding for its legibility and beauty. They enthusiastically adopted the 'antique letter' as they called it, with the classical Roman letters for capitals, and in a few years the form known as the humanistic hand developed. The labour-saving informal variant of this hand was exceptionally graceful, and at the same time an extremely practical and expeditious hand. For these reasons it was adopted for diplomatic uses in the chanceries at Venice and Rome in about 1447, and thus became known as the Chancery hand. Printing was invented in about 1450, and the early type-makers copied handwriting as closely as possible, so that the printed word would not suffer by comparison. In Northern Europe the first types were based on gothic hands, but in Italy in 1465 the deliberately written formal variant of the humanistic hand was used as a model for the first' roman' type, and in 1500 the Chancery hand became the pattern for the first 'italic' type. Usage slightly modified the Chancery hand, and it appeared in its most finished form in the first known writing manual which was published in 1522 by the Vatican scribe Ludovico degli Arrighi, a native of Vicenza.

The Chancery hand was introduced into England before 1483, and in 1571 was described as the Italic hand in the first English writing book. It achieved a certain degree of popularity in court and scholastic circles, but insular prejudice militated against its more general acceptance and by the end of the seventeenth century it had been more or less rejected in favour of hands fostered by commercial interests.

The inspiration of the contemporary movement for the revival of beautiful handwriting comes from the incomparable standard of the sixteenth century scribes. The movement has adopted the Chancery hand and adapted it to satisfy twentieth century everyday needs. The spearhead of the movement is the Society for Italic Handwriting.