CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS

CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily
This post and the photos within it may contain affiliate links. If you purchase something through the link, I may receive a commission at no extra charge to you.

In this article we are going to talk about the different calligraphic alphabets in western calligraphy (Latin alphabet). 

The purpose of this post is to present you a variety of different scripts that you can start learning and doing further research on.

It’s important to understand that different calligraphic alphabets appeared in different periods throughout history.

Instead of just mentioning a bunch of different calligraphy scripts, we are going to take you back in time, and give you a chronological overview of the major calligraphy scripts.

Here is a quick overview of what we are going to cover in this article –

  1. Western calligraphy & Latin alphabet
  2. Historical time periods and their most influential scripts + examples
  3. Final words

Get ready to travel back in time, and learn more about the rich history of calligraphy!

Let’s begin.

Pin me!

CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily

BEFORE WE GET STARTED

There are a few things that i would like to mention. 

Reviewing more than 2000 years of history in a single article is quite difficult, and obviously we compressed the whole thing and just mentioned the most influential scripts.

We want to give you just an idea of how handwriting developed in the western world

For each script we are going to provide additional resources (if any) for you to learn from.

While researching for the information for this article (online, books, videos) I’ve noticed that different sources sometimes give different information (especially when talking about dates and years).

In case you believe that we made a mistake in this article, please do not hesitate to reach out – we would really appreciate that.

Let’s begin.

WESTERN CALLIGRAPHY (THE LATIN ALPHABET)

The word calligraphy comes from the Greek Kallos and Graaphien meaning beautiful and writing

Calligraphy is a broad term that spreads across different cultures, and as such can be applied to any writing in any culture hence its existence in cultures all over the world like –

  • Chinese
  • Western
  • Indian
  • Arabic
  • Japanese
  • Tibetan
  • Etc.

In this article we solely focus on Western calligraphy (the Latin alphabet), and how it developed throughout more than 2,000 years of history.

We are going to have a closer look on some of the most influential scripts that are popular and still practiced today.  

The term hand is used to describe how the script is interpreted by the writer.

It’s also important to mention that a specific calligraphy script can be done in different styles.

Our friend Jake Rainis created a perfect example of how the same calligraphy script can be done in multiple styles.

CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily
Jake is an amazing calligraphy artist specializing in blackletter (gothic) scripts. He also runs a blog that is just  packed with value on different calligraphy topics.

HISTORICAL TIME PERIODS AND THEIR MOST INFLUENTIAL SCRIPTS

These are some of the the most influential historical periods that impacted the development of calligraphy.

  • Antiquity – Roman Empire
  • Post Roman – Uncial & Insular period
  • Middle ages 
  • Renaissance
  • Baroque
  • Modern

We are going to go (briefly) through each of these periods and mention the most important scripts.

ANTIQUITY – ROMAN EMPIRE

The Latin alphabet dates back to around 700 BC (Before Christ) and around the first century AD in Rome, the Roman Square Capitals emerged.

ROMAN CAPITALS

Even though it’s one of many scripts from that era, it is by far the single most influential historical script.

The beauty and the key of these letters lay in geometry and precision, one could say it reflects the finesse of the architecture and culture of that era.

This script served as fundamental basis for the historical development of the Latin alphabet, and essentially the way we communicate in writing today.

CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily
A drawing and photographed carving by Eric Gill of the “Trajan” capitals on the Column of Trajan Wikipedia.com

Here is an amazing video by Nicoló Visioli that demonstrates how to write the Roman Capitals with a flat brush –

RUSTIC CAPITALS

Along with the Square Roman Capitals we can distinguish another very influential (similar) script called the Rustic Capital.

Emerging in the same period, they were mostly painted with flat brushes or nibs as a more common script, for everyday use –

Opposed to the Square Roman Capitals that were being used for stone engraving and more formal occasions.

CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily
Folio14 recto of the Vergilius Romanus contains an author portrait of Virgil. Source – Wikipedia.com

Here is another example from Pinterest

Rustic capitals

POST ROMAN

UNCIAL

Several hundred years later ( second or third century AD) a new script developed influenced by the Greek alphabet.

The Uncial script was one the early alphabets used in Christian texts and aside from its beauty, it was a more practical and speedily written script, ideal for example – copying the Holy Bible or other manuscripts.

It is characterized by bold and curved strokes, and it took less strokes to complete a letterform compared to the Roman Capitals.

I find it extremely fascinating how the alphabet developed according to their need.

Here is a beautiful example from @thundy84

EARLY MIDDLE AGES

As the Roman Empire spread across other European countries through the coming years, it has eventually reached the northern parts of Europe, including England – bringing their language and the Roman alphabet.

Over the following centuries, Western Europe entered in the dark ages which followed with a decline of the Roman Empire.

THE BENEVENTAN SCRIPT

During this period a new script developed that was influenced by the Uncial script, yet it developed its own characteristics – one of them being ligatures (connecting strokes).  

The Beneventan script originated from the southern parts of Italy and it was one of the longest lasting Post Roman scripts.

CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily
Rule of St. Benedict, written at Monte Cassino in the late 11th century Source – Wikipedia.com {{PD-US}}

THE CAROLINGIAN MINUSCULE

One of the most important scripts of the medieval era was the Carolingian script that was developed during the ruling of Charlemagne in the late eighth century.

Charlemagne assigned Alcuin (Monk of York) to be his librarian and teacher, and to copy both religious texts and manuscripts as well as other texts of science and literature dating from the Greek and Roman era.

Alcuin along with his team of scribes in a scriptorium based in Tours (France)  developed a more streamlined script that served as a basis for the lower case alphabet that we use today.

CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily
Example from 10th-century manuscript, Vulgate Luke1:5-8. Source – Wikipedia.com {{PD-US}}

Here is another great example of the Carolingian script –

THE INSULAR SCRIPT 

Another important mention of this era is the Insular script.

A medieval script that developed in Ireland, and it was influenced by the scripts from the Roman era.

This particular script was under the influence of Irish Christianity which helped spread the script across England as well as the continental Europe.

One of the most well known examples of the Insular script is the Book of Kells (among many others)

CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily
The Book of Kells, c. AD 800, is lettered in a script known as “insular majuscule”, a variety of uncial script that originated in Ireland. – Wikipedia.com {{PD-US}}
CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily
The beginning of the Gospel of Mark from the Book of Durrow. – Wikipedia.com {{PD-US}}

MIDDLE AGES – GOTHIC

Following the post Roman era, a new script developed in Northern Europe (12th century).

The Gothic scripts are VERY popular in today’s age, practiced by many calligraphers – there are several different scripts (styles) that developed throughout this time period (see below).

The Gothic script grew out of Protogothic and Romanesque period. Gothic had its influence from the Carolingian script during the Charlemagne era.

However, this time the changes were more noticeable in the new Gothic script.

CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily
Page from a 14th-century psalter(Vulgate Ps 93:16–21), with Textualis Presciscus “sine pedibus” text. – Wikipedia.com {{PD-US}}

Characterized by a more compressed, thick, straight and angular shapes, it was the opposite compared to the round shapes that characterized the Carolingian script.

The Carolingian script although it was a beautiful script, it was time consuming and it took more space of page due to its round shapes and counter parts.

Once again, the way of writing was adapted towards the current need of the people – which at the time was a higher demand of handwritten books.

Blackletter (Gothic) scripts also include different (similar) styles such as – Textura Quadrata, Textura Presciscus, Batarde, Fraktur, Rotunda, etc.

CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily
English blackletter typefaces highlighting differences between select characters (Fonts). Source – Wikipedia.com {{PD-US}}

We have two step by step tutorials here on our website that will teach you how to get started with the Textura Quadrata script and the Fraktur script –

By now the Gothic became the new way of writing across Europe.

Books and legal documents were in high demand, and at that time the scribes were the only people who could perform such tasks.

Scribes and book producers formed into guilds, and soon enough they had a monopoly over book production and legal documents – thus made them very powerful at the time.

CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily
Jean Miélot, a European author and scribe at work. Source – Wikipedia.com {{PD-US}}

ALL GOOD THINGS COME TO AN END…

One of the most crucial events in the second millennium was the invention of the printing press.

A revolutionary invention by Johannes Gutenberg that brought prosperity to the world but put an end to the scribe.

The printing press (and movable type) broke the monopoly and simply no scribe could compete with a machine.

The printing press could run more than a hundred pages within an hour while the scribe could only do one.

This was a massive upgrade that allowed millions of books to be printed in a very short period of time.

CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily
Recreated Gutenberg press at the International Printing Museum, Carson, California. Source – Wikipedia.com

RENAISSANCE

As the year passed the middle ages came to an end, and a new era arrived.

An era of ‘’rebirth’’ for Western Europe and upcoming prosperity in major human activities, such as art, science, economy, etc.

CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily
The School of Athens, year 1511, Fresco, dimensions Height: 500 cm (16.4 ft); Width: 7.7 m (25.2 ft) – Source – Wikipedia.com {{PD-US}}

At the time the gothic script that was developed in Northern Europe, was the dominant hand being used, however, that particular way of writing did not really resonated with the Italians.

There was one scholar in particular who considered the Gothic to be rather unpractical and who openly criticized it in his manuscripts.

His name was Francesco Petrarca.

Petrarca described it as a script that has an appeal to the eye from distance, but creating fatigue from up close, and that it’s purpose should be for something else than reading.

Francesco also argued that writing should be clear, simple and orthographically correct (to be honest, I’m not really sure i understand what he meant by that).

These were the notions that gave birth to the Humanist minuscule.

CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily
Page from the Book of Hours of Giovanni II BentivoglioBologna, c. 1497-1500. Humanist minuscule with colored versals and decorations. Source – Wikipedia.com {{PD-US}}

THE HUMANIST MINUSCULE

It is said that this is one of the most significant and defining of all Western scripts.

It was very popular in Italy at the time and this script presented a model for the Venetian typeface.

The Humanist minuscule was influenced by the Carolingian hand, as the scholars of that time period were particularly keen on perceiving themselves as the inheritors of the antique era.

CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily
Here is an overview of how the minuscule (Latin) alphabet developed up until this point. Source – Wikipedia.com {{PD-US}}

THE CANCELLARESCA SCRIPT (Italic)

The Cancellaresca script was another major update in the way people write.

It was particularly innovative because it improved as a script in terms of functionality and speed of writing.

Scholar Niccolò de’ Niccoli was dissatisfied with how laborious the Humanist minuscule was, so he created a slanted script that required fewer strokes and that could be joined with other letters.

Italic calligraphy ducts
The Italic script ductus. Image taken from Pinterest.

One of the biggest changes was made to the lowercase letter a, which was quite different from the one in Humanist minuscule script.

Another very important mention about the Cancellaresca script is that it served as a base for cursive writing that we teach and use today.

If you want to learn the Italic hand, there is this really cool online (video) course by Jackson Alves, that will teach you the basics and how to get started.

The best part is that you can watch the whole thing for free! 

You can check it out here.

BAROQUE

After the period of Rennaisance, the Cancellaresca Corsiva provided the foundation for a new script to be developed.  

Fun fact –

The word “cursive” is derived from the Medieval Latin word “cursivus”, which translates to “running”.

Chancery cursive (Cancelleresca corsiva) hand. Papal Letter to Christian II of Denmark, 21 April 1518 (Royal Archives). Source

COPPERPLATE 

During the sack of Rome (1527) many scribes moved to the southern parts of France where they developed the Italic Cancellaresca which was later adapted to the French style Rhonde in the early 17th century.

It wasn’t until the end of the 17th century when books with the French Rhonde script reached England, where John Ayres and William Banson refined their interpretations of the French script.

During the following years and with the help of fellow writing masters such as Goerge Bickham, the English Roundhand spread across the world, due to British Mercantile Trade.

CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily
George Bickham’s Round Hand script, from The Universal Penman, c. 1740–1741 (an engraving, not actual writing). Source – Wikipedia.com {{PD-US}}

The name Copperplate originates back from when the writing was engraved on plates made out of copper, which writing masters would use for printing samples of their beautiful work.

It was being done this way, because printing machines and movable type could not reproduce (yet) such complexity and variations of styles.

On the iampeth.com website you can find much more information on the history of this particular script as well as steps on how to get started. 

I highly recommend that you check it out.

SPENCERIAN SCRIPT

This is a script originating in the United States developed in the 19th century by Platt Rogers Spencer.

Platt Roger Spencer developed a style of penmanship that was used as a standard of writing for nearly a hundred years – up until the point the typewriting machine came along in the 20th century.

What made this script so popular and influential was not only its beauty but also the functionality that lays behind the way you write it.

FUN FACT – it is said that the Spencerian script served as an influence point for the Coca-Cola logotype, which we all know that is one of the most iconic logotypes in the world.

CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily
Enduring example, twenty years after Platt Rogers Spencer’s death, of Spencerian script from 1884 from the Gem City Business College of Quincy, Illinois. Source – Wikipedia.com {{PD-US}}

In this article, Dr. Joseph Vitolo talks more in depth about the Copperplate and Spencerian scripts (as well as their differences) with plenty of examples. 

MODERN ERA

Although it seemed that machines have turned writing by hand obsolete, calligraphy took a variety of different directions such as advertisement and demand in novelty for type design.

We mark the modern era from the beginning of the 20th century with pioneers such as Edward Johnston and Rudolf Koch – also known as the fathers of modern calligraphy. 

A lot of new developments occurred in the last 100+ years and it would really drag this article out if we were to cover all of it. 

Instead we are going to stick to the most impactful developments. 

CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS -Lettering Daily
Edward Johnston’s calligraphy, shown in the 1906 book Writing & Illuminating & Lettering. Source – Wikipedia.com

FOUNDATIONAL HAND

This hand is set to be one of the most iconic alphabets in the whole realm of calligraphy alphabets due to its clear defined characters.

It was devised by Edward Johnston in the early twentieth century.

The Foundational hand is an adaptation of the Carolingian script from the post Roman era. 

If you want to learn more about the Foundational hand and how to get started, Jackson Alves has another great online (video) course for beginners. 

Like with the course for the Italic hand, you can take this one for free as well.

You can check it out here.

NEULAND CAPITALS

These capitals were designed in the early twentieth century by calligrapher and type designer Rudolf Koch. 

It’s an iconic and vigorous alphabet that is still practiced by many calligraphers all over the world – ideal for large-scale and display work.

Fun fact – the Neuland typeface was used for the Jurassic Park logo.

MODERN STYLES

There are just so many different modern styles that you can practice today. 

Another great thing is that once you learn the basics of a specific tool whether it’s a brush pen, broad edge pen, pointed nib etc. you can start developing your very own style. 

This is probably one of my favorite aspects of modern calligraphy, the fact that you can create your own rules!

If you want to get started with it, we have an in-depth step by step tutorial that will cover all the basics along with free downloadable practice sheets.

FINAL WORDS

Calligraphy is becoming more popular by the day, and its currently seeing a new ”renaissance” across the globe. 

A huge part is due to our technological advancements in the recent years and especially the connectivity through social media platforms. 

Thanks to the internet and social platforms we are able to spread various resources of this beautiful art form – and a perfect example of it, is right this moment while you are reading this article.

Hopefully this article gave you an idea of how to art of writing developed throughout history, and it will also help you to choose a script that you would like to learn and practice.

Are you struggling with lettering and calligraphy? Do you have a specific question that you cannot find an answer too? Maybe you just want to hang out and network with fellow lettering and calligraphy artists?

If so, you should definitely check out our official Facebook group!

A place where you can get constructive feedback on your work, ask any sort of questions, meet and network with awesome people and much more!

Until the next time,

Stay AWESOME!

Lettering Crate Optimized

Stay updated with our tutorials and get instant access to the Lettering Crate –

A growing library of free lettering & calligraphy resources that includes – FREE downloadable calligraphy practice sheets, Procreate brushes, the 30-day lettering planner, printables, and more.
The Lettering Crate sample image - free lettering and calligraphy worksheets and resources
About Author

2 thoughts on “CALLIGRAPHY ALPHABETS – A LIST OF MAJOR HISTORICAL SCRIPTS”

  1. Eileen Harvey

    may I join your group please. I’m only new at calligraphy but intensely interested. I am left handed and am having a time trying to find lefty nibs. However, I bought a cheap set of right handed pens to try. Thank you for producing this great site.

    1. Lettering Daily

      Hey Eileen, absolutely! Everyone is more than welcome to join in our group 🙂 Thank you for the kind words!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
Send this to a friend