Exeter Book Hand (EBH) is a facsimile font set based on the calligraphic style found in the 10th-century Exeter Book.
EBH aims to be historically authentic through faithful renderings of archaic letterforms, historical ligatures, punctuation and diacritical marks found in the manuscript.
EBH comes in four styles: Facsimile, Alternates, Initials, and Runes. The collection is ideal for the creation of facsimiles, palaeography resources and other products with medieval motifs.
These fonts are shared under the SIL Open Font License, which means that they are free, and one can easily modify their design or add additional glyphs.
About the Exeter Book
The Exeter Book (Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501) is a remarkable anthology and one of the four major codices of Old English literature that have survived, along with the Beowulf manuscript, the Junius manuscript, and the Vercelli Book. It acquired its name because it has been in the care of the Exeter Cathedral since it was donated to the library there by Bishop Leofric, sometime before 1072.
Written in well-formed Square minuscule, the book was produced around 960–80 in a scriptorium in southwest England. Though damaged and incomplete in several ways, its 123 written leaves are largely well preserved. The content is made up of nearly 100 poetic riddles and some 40 poems and elegies, including such classics as The Wanderer and The Seafarer, which have inspired writers from Ezra Pound to JRR Tolkien. It is also significant in that it contains two poems signed by Cynewulf, one of the few named Old English poets.
In 2016 the Exeter Book was added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, making it an example of global significance. It is a crucial remnant of a once flourishing oral tradition and, had it not survived, Old English literature would be much narrower in scope.
About this Project
The Digital Exeter Book Hand is an independent online resource that aims to encourage the study and appreciation of the scribal hand of the Exeter Book. Currently, the project has two objectives: one is to create a digital revival of the Exeter Book hand, and another is to provide an interactive book-hand edition of selected poems from the Exeter Book for students and general audiences.
Read & Explore
The Script: English Square Minuscule
Before the term ‘Square minuscule’ was introduced, the script of the Exeter Book was deemed ‘a standard example’ of the English hand of the 10th century by Sir Edward Maunde Thompson (Conner 51). By ‘standard’ he meant the hand in which the scribes of that period aspired to write. There are variations in the thickness of the various letter forms. For instance, the letter m demonstrates thick vertical strokes, the letter b exhibits an alternation of thick and thin strokes on the square axis, and the letter g illustrates the alternation of thick and thin strokes on the diagonal axis. The balance of light and heavy strokes in the fine Square minuscule is the result of the intersection of strokes at or near right angles on the square and diagonal axes (51).
The development of Insular minuscule as a book hand in England dates from the end of the 7th century, coinciding with the emergence of earlier hybrid scripts. By the late 9th century, Insular minuscule was undergoing changes, first becoming angular and upright, and then more round under the influence of the Caroline minuscule. From c. 920, the script entered its square phase, and the hand of the Tollemache Orosius (London, British Library, Add. 47967) marks the emergence of the prototype for English Square minuscule (Roberts 39). This reformed Insular minuscule became the standard script in the 10th century and was widely employed for texts both in Latin and Old English. As demonstrated in the Exeter Book, the overall shape of the script is very upright, with long ascenders and descenders and plenty of space between lines, while the ornamentation takes the form of initials made up of elements common in both Germanic and Celtic art.
The People Behind the Words
Medieval manuscripts are the product of intellectual efforts of the time. Many of them were works of art, and surviving examples are priceless. From the beginning of monastic history, the copying of books, regardless of their educational value, was a time-consuming and painstaking process – stealing them was high crime. One scribe, after copying the 12th-century Arnstein Bible, wrote in the colophon:
Liber . . . quem si quis abstulerit, morte moriatur; in sartagine coquatur; caducus morbus instet eum et febres; et rotatur, et suspendatur. Amen.
[If anyone steals this book, let him die in death; let him be fried in the pan; let the falling sickness and fever seize him; let him be broken on the wheel, and hanged. Amen.] (qtd. in Drogin 8)
Today, it seems strange and unnecessary to chain the books to shelves or call down the wrath of God upon someone who attempts to escape with a sacred text. But in the ages before printing, books were highly valued in their scarcity and workmanship. Medieval handwriting is not only an artistic manifestation of the virtuosic technique of the one handling a quill, but also a reflection of the cultural values of its national origins. The following illustrations from a 12th-century manuscript (Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, MS Patr. 5, fol. 1v) depict some of the labour involved in the making a book:
(1) preparing parchment
(2) cutting it to size or scoring lines for lettering
(3) cutting a quill pen
(4) painting or trimming pages
(5) sewing a book
(6) making its cover
(7) making its clasp
(8) displaying it
(9) putting it to good use
The Font: EBH — A Collection of 4 Type Styles
EBH (Short of Exeter Book Hand) is a faithful rendition of the Exeter Book’s hand in four styles, complete with Old English characters such as eth (ð), thorn (Þ) and wynn (ƿ). It covers the great majority of letter forms, punctuation and diacritical marks found in the manuscript, with an extension of the modern character set to make the typeface usable today. It comes in four types:
Frequently Asked Questions
EBH Alternates: ‘Bliþe sceal bealoleas heorte.’ (Translation: ‘Happy is the innocent in heart.’) – Maxims I, recorded in the Exeter Book (fols. 88v–92v)
EBH Runes: ‘HRONÆSBAN’ (Translation: ‘whale’s bone’) – recorded on the Franks Casket
EBH Facsimile (in Specimen): ‘Swa þes middangeard . . . wlonc bi wealle’ – Wanderer, recorded in the Exeter Book (fols. 76v–78r)
EBH Alternates (in Specimen): ‘So this middle-earth . . . snow-covered the dwellings’ – ibid., adapted from Echard’s translation
Conner, P. W., Anglo-Saxon Exeter: A Tenth-Century Cultural History (Woodbridge 1993)
Drogin, M., Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique (New York 1989)
Dumville, D. N., ‘English Square minuscule script: the background and earliest phases’, Anglo-Saxon England 16 (1987): 147–179
Gameson, R., ‘The Origin of the Exeter Book of Old English Poetry.’ Anglo-Saxon England 25 (1996): 135–85
Ker, N. R., Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford 1957)
Parkes, M. B., Their Hands Before Our Eyes: A Closer Look at Scribes—The Lyell Lectures Delivered in the University of Oxford, 1999 (Aldershot 2008)
Roberts J., Guide to Scripts Used in English Writings up to 1500 (London 2005)
Useful Links about the Exeter Book
I am thankful to be standing on the shoulders of many others. I owe much of what I have learned to the authors I have consulted and not least to my wonderful teachers at the University of Göttingen. I would like to especially thank PD Dr Göran Wolf, who gave me the idea for this project and provided valuable guidance on its development. Without his support from the beginning, this project would not have been possible. I would also like to extend my special thanks to Dr Anna Dorofeeva, Dr Elliott Lash, and Dr Liza Wing Man Kam for their generosity in sharing their expertise and providing specific suggestions for this website. Any mistakes or oversights that remain here are, of course, my responsibility alone.
Above all, I am enormously grateful to the Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives, the University of Exeter Digital Humanities Lab as well as its partner universities for their efforts in making the manuscript of the Exeter Book available to all on the Internet.