The story of Sunday

Between the 8th and 9th centuries, Corbie Abbey in the Somme played an important role in the cultural influence of the Carolingian Empire. It contributes to the development of Caroline writing, the ancestor of our current writing and of the Times New Roman font.

Question marks, commas and other spaces between the words we write seem very natural to us. However, like everything, they have an origin. In this case, they descend from the Caroline script, developed in the Middle Ages at the Abbey of Corbie in the Somme.

In the Middle Ages, Charlemagne, king of the Franks and emperor from 768 to 814, undertook during his reign to unify the Empire, to develop letters and the arts and to evangelize the greatest number. Thus, from his palace in Aix-la-Chapelle, where he settled in 790, the Emperor enacted laws – capitulars – and relied on the abbeys to establish his power throughout the territory.

In each bishopric, a school was created to instruct the Frankish elite in Latin, the common language of the administration and of the Church throughout the Empire. “It was necessary that all the populations be under the same religion, it was necessary that Catholicism be spread most widely on the territory. Obviously, the transmission of religion passed through the books“, reports Charlotte Denoël, chief curator at the National Library of France (BNF) and specialist in medieval manuscripts.

However, one obstacle remains to the unification of the Empire: there is no single script. “At the time, there were many different scripts circulating all over the country, from place to place. Sometimes, we couldn’t read a document and that created misunderstandings“, says Charlotte Denoel.

Especially since the diplomatic writing of the time is very difficult to read: “It was a Merovingian script, very elongated. Even for specialists, it is very difficult to decipher“.

The so-called semi-uncial script, dating from antiquity, is also used. It matches a mix of upper and lower case letters, “widely used in liturgical and biblical books. But it was very calligraphic so really long to draw“.

In 789, Charlemagne promulgates a capitular named in Latin Admonitio generalis. “A kind of guide with good practice advice for his government. He asks that more legible chancellery documents be produced“, continues the specialist.

From then on, the Emperor’s scribes began to develop a script that could be read by everyone, based on the previous ones. “At the same time, there were movements in the abbeys to develop legible writing in books. Thus, there was a convergence“.

At the same time, Corbie Abbey, founded between 657 and 662 by Queen Mathilde, regent of the kingdom of France, spread throughout Europe. “At the time, Corbie was a major cultural center“, explains Michel Damagnez, president of the Friends of old Corbie, an association working to make known the historical past of the Picardy city.

Its main role was to highlight the region, but also to evangelize the populations.

Michel Damagnez, president of the Friends of Old Corbie

Placed under royal protection, the abbey has significant resources and plays a major role in the cultural development of the Empire, in particular thanks to writing. “Corbie was a very large center of copyists, very early in the Merovingian era“, adds Charlotte Denoel.

It is in this context of reforms and cultural influence that the tiny caroline was created. This new writing is intended to be more readable and faster to write. “The caroline presents letters well detached from each other, and words separated from each other, contrary to the previous writings of the Merovingian period. There are also standard Latin abbreviations that have come into place“, details the expert.

There are commas, lots of ampersands, there is even the at sign! We think it’s from modern times, but we didn’t invent anything“, smiles Michel Damagnez. For the president of the Friends of old Corbie, one thing is certain: “Corbie was the main center of its elaboration“.

The development of the characters was carried out by the monks in the scriptorium of the abbey of Corbie. They will refine the writing so that everyone can understand the edicts and laws.

Michel Damagnez, president of the Friends of Old Corbie

Charlotte Denoël is more moderate: “The origins of the Caroline script are much debated. We traditionally place the birth of this writing in the abbey of Corbie under the abbacy of an abbot at the time of Charlemagne who is called Maurdramne. But in fact, Caroline writing was not born like that on a specific date. It is rather a long process of elaboration and evolution of the previous writings to result in a more readable writing.“.

Whatever the place and the date where this writing was developed, it is true that it was used very early in the abbey of Corbie.

Charlotte Denoël, curator at the BNF, specialist in medieval manuscripts

With the aim of making his abbey prosper both economically and intellectually, Maurdramne, abbot of Corbie from 772 to 281, actually had many manuscripts copied in this new script. His manuscript, The Maurdramne Bible Where Book of Maccabeeswritten between 772 and 780 – well before theAdmonitio generalis of Charlemagne – is the oldest parchment written in tiny carolina. It was also under his abbacy that a punctuation system was developed – which did not exist before – and in particular the question mark. “At the time, it was called Maurdramne’s writing because its invention was attributed to Abbot“, adds the specialist in medieval manuscripts.

The writing will then be perfected, in particular thanks to the Abbé Adalhard, cousin of Charlemagne and successor of Maurdramne in Corbie. “He will be in charge of directing the scriptorium and developing this writing. At the time, there were 300 monks in Corbie and 800 manuscripts at the abbey. A real business“, says Michel Damagnez. “Adalhard will offer the writing to his cousin Charlemagne. She will then take the name of tiny caroline“, he specifies.

Then introduced to the abbey of Saint-Martin-de-Tours by Abbot Alcuin – appointed in 796 and close adviser to Charlemagne – caroline reached its peak. Become official writing of the kingdom, “it spread like wildfire in all the religious centers of the Carolingian Empire“, notes Charlotte Denoël. It is disseminated everywhere via codices, chapters and various religious texts.”It imposes itself, it is unanimously accepted. It was broadcast very early in Germany, then in Spain around the 12th century.e century“.

At the end of the Middle Ages, it was challenged by Gothic writing before returning in force to the Renaissance with the invention of printing by Gutenberg. “In the XVe century, people were looking for a very legible typeface for printing. They took the tiny carolina thinking they had a writing from antiquity as a model, but in fact it was a writing from the IXe“, smiles the curator. She then serves as a model for printers.

At present, it still exists, the font Times New Roman, it is in fact caroline!

Michel Damagnez, president of the Friends of Old Corbie

The caroline is the ancestor of our current lower case. “It is the writing that has historically lasted the longest. It is nevertheless an exceptional longevity and it belongs to the world heritage“, underlines Charlotte Denoël. Especially since she has a known descent: the font Times New Roman, which appeared in 1932 in the newspaper The Times and popularized by Microsoft, in its Word editing software.

Would it then be proof of chauvinism to say that the most famous typeface in the world is… Picardy?

The story of Sunday – How the caroline typeface, designed in Picardy, gave birth to punctuation and Times New Roman