Magna Carta

Documentary Hands

View a copy of the Magna Carta

Documentary hands writing charters tend to be showy. In England, particularly in the thirteenth century, there was a tendency to emphasize lengthened ascenders and descenders, most obvious in the top line.

The papal knot was an alternative to the regular abbreviation stroke. It was introduced in the twelfth century as a result of papal influence.1

1. Which of these example words contains a papal knot?

2. Read a word with a papal knot:

The document's skeletal capital letter formations are particularly noteworthy. Which letter is which?


In the case of the `W', the final stroke is 3-shape. This is an English trait shared by book and documentary hands, though it appears earlier in documentary scripts.

7. Which is letter W?

This copy of the Magna Carta is written with a pen with a narrow nib -- not a broad nib. Differences in width in the graphs result not in turning the nib (as is the case for broad-nibbed pens) but in pushing down harder on the nib so that more ink emerges.

Letters are fatter in the center particularly on strokes going from upper left to lower right and horizontally, and the change is not as abrupt as it is with scripts written with a broad-nibbed pen.

Read some words with letters formed in this manner.




The strokes meant to distinguish lower case i from other minims do not appear, which is a sign that this is a charter written comparatively early in the thirteenth century.


Challenge: Read the phrase!

For help look at this


Image samples are taken from a copy of the Magna Carta held in the British Library, Cotton MS. Augustus II. 106.

1. Brown 33.