“Terrible Letters”: Bad Handwriting and its Implications, 1020–1220


Anglo-Saxon literature
early Middle English

How to Cite

Treharne, E. (2023). “Terrible Letters”: Bad Handwriting and its Implications, 1020–1220. SELIM. Journal of the Spanish Society for Medieval English Language and Literature., 28(1), 79–96. https://doi.org/10.17811/selim.28.2023.79-96


This article focuses on the role of one of the most fundamental of medieval figures—the scribe, as well as on the products of scribes in the eighth to thirteenth centuries. It chiefly addresses how writing seems to have functioned and been conceived of and how present-day scholarly palaeographical methods do not always adjudicate medieval writing practices sensitively or convincingly. This matters, and especially so in our age of the digital aspect, since the inherited categories of description simply no longer hold force. What constitutes ‘bad handwriting’ then and is it, in fact, a description that can be validated by close analysis of scholarship and medieval writing practices?



Barney, Stephen A., trans. 2006. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Borrie, Michael. 2010. “Edward Maunde Thompson (1840-1929).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Accessed April 6, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/36488.

Brooks, Nicholas. 2014. “The Early Charters of Canterbury Cathedral.” British Academy Review: 38–41. Accessed April 6, 2023. https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/documents/796/BAR24-12-Brooks.pdf.

Cahn, Walter. 1994. “Architecture and Exegesis: Richard of St Victor’s Ezekiel Commentary and its illustrations.” The Art Bulletin 76: 53–68.

Cameron, Angus, Ashley Crandell Amos, Antonette diPaolo Healey, et al., eds. 2018. Dictionary of Old English: A to I online. Toronto: Dictionary of Old English Project. Accessed April 6, 2023. https://tapor.library.utoronto.ca/doe/.

Clements, Jill Hamilton. 2018. “Sudden Death in Early Modern England.” In Dealing with the Dead: Mortality and Community in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, edited by Thea Tomaini, 36–67. Leiden: Brill.

Colgrave, Bertram, and R. A. B. Mynors, eds. and trans. 1969. Bede Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Coulson, Frank T., and Robert G. Babcock, eds. 2020. The Oxford Handbook of Latin Palaeography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crick, Julia. 2018. “An Eleventh-Century Prayer-Book for Women? The Origins and History of the Galba Prayer-Book.” In Writing, Kingship and Power in Anglo-Saxon England, edited by Rory Naismith, and David A. Woodman, 281–302. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Denholm-Young, Neil. 1964. Handwriting in England and Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

James, M. R. 1909–1912. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available online at The Parker on the Web website.

Giles, John Allen, ed. 1843. The Historical Writings of the Venerable Bede. London: Bohn.

Greet, W. C., ed. 1927. The Reuele of Crysten Religioun. Early English Text Society, o.s. 171. Oxford: Oxford University Press; reprint 1987.

Kowal, Durlabh Singh, and Pradeep K. Gupta. 2021. “Handwriting Analysis: A Psychopathic Viewpoint.” International Journal of Indian Psychology 9 (1): 1052–1058.

Gairdner, James, ed. 1904. The Paston Letters, 6 vols. London: Chatto and Windus.

Gawda, Barbara. 2019. “The Computational Analyses of Handwriting in Individuals with Psychopathic Personality Disorder.” PLoS 14 (12): e0225182. Accessed April 6, 2023. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7063674/.

Ker, Neil R. 1957. Catalogue of Manuscript Containing Anglo-Saxon. Oxford: Clarendon Press; repr. with Supplement, 1990.

Lewis, Charlton T. and Charles Short. 1879. A Latin Dictionary. Founded on Andrews’ Edition of Freund’s Latin dictionary. Revised, Enlarged, and in Great Part Rewritten by Charlton T. Lewis, Ph.D. and. Charles Short, LL.D. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Accessed April 6, 2023.


London, British Library, Harley MS 104. Accessed April 6, 2023. https://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?Source=BrowseTitles&letter=F&ref=Harley_MS_104.

Momma, Haruko. 2019. “Capturing Words with a Net of Love: 1000-Year-Old Scribbles as a Case Study.” MLA Convention, Chicago. Accessed April 6, 2023. https://www.slideserve.com/anniereyes/capturing-words-with-a-net-of-love-1000-year-old-scribbles-as-a-case-study-powerpoint-ppt-presentation.

Parker on the Web Digitisation of Manuscripts at Cambridge, Corpus Christi College. Accessed April 6, 2023. https://parker.stanford.edu/parker/.

Pope, John Collins, ed. 1967–1978. Homilies of Ælfric: A Supplementary Collection, 2 vols., EETS 259, 260. London: Oxford University Press.

Quaresmio, F., ed. 1639. Historica Theologica Et Moralis Terrae Sanctae Elucidatio in qua pleraque ad veterem et præsentem ejusdem terræ statum spectantia accurate explicantur (2 fol. vols., pp. xxx, 924–98 and 1014–120, Antwerp, 1639); second edition edited by P. Cypriano da Treviso (4 pts. in 2 fol. vols., Venice, 1880–1881).

Rowley, Sharon. 2009. “The Role and Function of Otherworldly Visions in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum.” In The World of Travellers: Exploration and Imagination, Mediaevalia Groningana, n.s. 15, edited by Kees Dekker, Karin Olsen, and Tette Hofstra, 163–81. Leuven: Peeters.

Shimomura, Sachi. 2006. Odd Bodies and Visible Ends in Medieval Literature. London: Palgrave.

Sisam, Celia, and Kenneth Sisam, eds. 1959. The Salisbury Psalter Edited from Salisbury Cathedral MS 150. Early English Text Society o.s. 242. London: Oxford University Press.

Sparks, Nicholas A. 2013. “An Insular Fragment of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica.” Anglo-Saxon England 42: 27–50.

Thompson, Edward Maunde. 1893. Handbook of Greek and Latin Palaeography. The International Scientific Series lxx. New York: D. Appleton.

Thompson, Edward Maunde. 1912. Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Treharne, Elaine. 2011. “Writing the Book: Cambridge University Library, Ii. 1. 33.” New Medieval Literatures 13: 303–12.

Treharne, Elaine. 2012. “‘The Good, the Bad, the Ugly’: Old English Manuscripts and Their Physical Description.” In The Genesis of Books: Studies in the Scribal Culture of Medieval England in Honour of A. N. Doane, edited by Matthew Hussey, and John Niles, 261–83. Turnhout: Brepols.

Treharne, Elaine. 2021. Perceptions of Medieval Manuscripts: The Phenomenal Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Treharne, Elaine. 2023. “‘Miserere, meidens’: Abbesses and Nuns.” In Women and Medieval Literary Culture from the Early Middle Ages to the Fifteenth Century, edited by Corinne Saunders, and Diane Watt, 27–49. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vause, Corinne J., and Frank C. Gardiner. 2004. Pope Innocent III: Between God and Man. Six Sermons on the Priestly Office. Medieval Texts in Translation. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Wakelin, Daniel. 2014. Scribal Correction and Literary Craft. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilcox, Jonathan, ed. and trans. 1994. Ælfric’s Prefaces. Durham: Durham University.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Copyright (c) 2023 SELIM. Journal of the Spanish Society for Medieval English Language and Literature.


Download data is not yet available.