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Medieval and Renaissance Facsimiles and Incunables: A Resource Guide

Deciphering scribal abbreviations

Medieval manuscripts were heavily abbreviated to save parchment and ink. As a general rule, manuscripts designed to be studied contained more abbreviations than those which were meant to be read aloud. Familiarity with some of the most common abbreviations will make deciphering these texts easier. There are thousands of abbreviations scattered throughout the corpus of medieval writings. Some are unique to a particular scribe, but many – with some variation – were near universal throughout Europe. The list below is far from exhaustive, but is meant to serve as a brief overview of the types of abbreviations one will most frequently encounter in manuscripts from the Middle Ages. David Herman and Richard Kay in their English translation of the introduction of Adriano Cappelli’s Dizionario di Abbreviature Latini offer the following advice regarding medieval paleography: “All too often the beginner slavishly looks up in this dictionary every abbreviation he encounters, when in nine cases out of ten he could ascertain the meaning by applying a few simple rules.” It is in this vain that the following examples are provided so that by recognizing these symbols and the guidelines that govern them, over half of all scribal abbreviations can be deciphered without any other aid.

A note of caution: The rules governing abbreviations were flexible, and scribes did not adhere to the exact same sets of rules regarding them. However, general patterns can be discerned for scribal abbreviations. Moreover, when the rules dictating the use of an abbreviation vary among different scribes and different texts, context will usually suffice to allow the reader to determine which letters must be supplied for that abbreviation.

The symbol that resembles the number 4 or a number 2 with a vertical line crossing it is an abbreviation for the letters rum.

This word is aqua[rum].


This word is eo[rum].


The word in this image is bono[rum].


This word is mo[rum].

An abbreviation sign which primarily resembles and superscript 2 but also has other variations (as seen in the last two examples) most often represents the letters ur, but can also represent another vowel with the letter r such as er in the last image.


The word here is expanded as co[n]tinent[ur]. Note the 2-like abbreviation at the end of the word.


This word is probat[ur].


This word is igit[ur]. Note the variation in appearance of the abbreviation in this example and the one below it as compared to the two above.


The abbreviation here does not indicate the typical ur letters but er, giving litt[er]is


In this example, the abbreviation is written differently than how it is depicted in the first and second examples as well as the third and fourth examples. Yet, it is the same abbreviation. This word is expanded as efficacit[er].

Oftentimes, when a 9 symbol begins a word, it represents the letters con. Depending on context, it could also represent similar variations such as cun, cum, and com. It can also be written as a backwards letter c.

The word is [con]gregat.

When a 9 abbreviation comes at the end of a word, it represents the letters us as in rogam[us] in the example below.


Care should be exercised when expanding these two abbreviations, as there are are occasions when at the beginning of a word 9 means “us” as in the word usus, which could be written as 99 [usus]; us9 us[us]; or 9us [us]us.

There are four primary meanings for the abbreviation which most often resembles a modern semicolon (;) or the Middle English letter yogh (ȝ):

In Latin, this sign is very often used to represent the dative and ablative plural endings of the third, fourth and fifth declensions.
The word is a the third declension ablative plural uberib[us].


After a vowel, this abbreviation is a substitute for the letter m as in nullu[m].

After the letter q, it represents the letters ue, as in usq[ue]. Used in this way, it is a very common abbreviation.


When second and third conjugation third person singular verbs such as videt, debet, habet, videlicet, licet, oportet, patet, and so on occur in manuscripts and incunables, this sign at the end of such words indicates the letters et. Thus, the example is deb[et].


In this vain, a very common abbreviation for sed is s; or sȝ which represents the alternative medieval spelling set rather than the classical spelling sed.

Superscript vowels appear very often over the letter q and p, and appear frequently over other letters as well. Above q, they denote the superscript letter itself and the vowel u. Over p, they signify the superscript vowel itself and oftentimes another consonant.


Here, the superscript i indicates that the vowel i has been omitted, and that the reader must also supply the letter r, giving p[ri]mo.


Similarly, the superscript i between the c and p represents the letters r and i yielding desc[ri]ptio.


Sometimes (especially for common words like frequently used adverbs) a superscript letter represents most letters of a particular word. In the first example the superscript i above the g represents ig[itur]. In the second example, the superscript o above the m represents mo[do].


The same principle applies to the example below. It is expanded as q[uo]q[ue].


Likewise, the word here is q[uo]m]odo]


This example follows the same pattern, but the superscript letter is an a. It resembles a lowercase u with a horizontal line connecting the tops of the two ascenders. This word in the first image is sup[ra], int[ra[ in the second image.


In this example, the reader must supply the vowel u with the missing a to produce q[ua]ndo.

A line, horizontal or wavy written over a letter indicates that some letters have been omitted. Usually these letters are m or n, but this is not always the case.


The line over the o represents the letter n giving locutio[n]is.


In both images, the abbreviation indicates that both the n and m have been omitted to give o[mn]ia in the first image and a[n]i[m]a in the second.


Here, the line is over the u and represents the letter m making hominu[m].

In this instance, the abbreviation does not represent letters m nor n. It indicates that the letters rae have been omitted which is expanded as p[rae]cepto.


In these two examples, more than the letter m or n has been omitted. In the first example, the first omission line represents ue and the last one represents m giving eloq[ue]ntia[m]. Likewise in the second example, the letters ient have been left out producing sap[ient]ia.

When the letters q, p, b, l, h, and t and a horizontal or diagonal line through them, it meant that some letters were omitted which needed to be supplied by the reader. The most common letters with a horizontal line were p and q. Whenever a p had a line through its descender, the possible combinations are per, prae, pre, par, por, pro.


This word expanded is paup[er]tas.


In this example, the p with the intersecting line represents por, or corp[or]is.


In this instance the p with the horizontal line denotes the letters pro giving p[ro]hibetur.


The q with a diagonal line represents uod as in quod


Sometimes a q will have a horizontal line through its descender a superscript symbol representing the letter a. A letter q with this combination of abbreviations represents the word q[uam]. The line crossing the descender of the q represents that the letter m has been omitted. Compare this to to the second image without the line crossing the descender, indicating that this abbreviated word represents q[ua].


In this example nichil note the medieval spelling with the addition of the c nich[il]. The line through the ascender of the h indicates that the letters i and l have been omitted.


In this word, the line through the l denotes that i and s have been left out, thus giving flebil[is]


Likewise, the line through the ascender of the letter b means i and s have been omitted, yielding nob[is]

Some words were so abundant that their abbreviations were universally known among scribes throughout Europe. One such word was dominus, abbreviated to just three letters.

Here, dominus has been abbreviated to Dn̄s. The horizontal line over the n represents many omissions in this case. The letter s represents the nominative masculine singular ending s. This pattern of writing the last letter or two letters indicating case endings allowed the reader to discern the case and grammatical function of this abbreviated word.



Luttrell Psalter


Continuing this pattern, dn̄o would stand for domino, the dative or ablative masculine singular (as in the image below) ; dn̄um would denote dominum.

It was common for words to contain multiple abbreviations of either the same or different types. Below are examples of words containing two or three abbreviations.


This word is ho[m]i[n]e[m]. In this instance, line above the i indicates that both m and n have been omitted. The last letter is a variation of the letter m.


In this example, there are three abbreviations. The first is the abbreviation for "con", the line crossing the descender of the letter p denotes per, and the abbreviation at the end of the word signify ur. The word expanded is [com]p[er]ant[ur]


The abbreviation above the c is a variation of the superscript a denoting letters ra. The line above the e represents the omission of the letter n giving sac[ra]me[n]to.


Here the superscript i above the q means ui and the 9 symbol after the b stands for us denoting q[ui]b[us].


In this word the horizontal line through the descender of the p tells us that the letters er have been omitted. The line over the a means than an m has been left out, and the semicolon after the q represents ue. The word expanded is p[er]fecta[m]q[ue].


On occasion, the 9 or backward c abbreviation can represent the letters os, though most frequently it denotes us. Here, the word expanded is p[os]tq[uam]. Note the superscript a above the q signifying the letters ua and the horizontal line through the q indicating that m has been left out.


The word below expanded is [con]t[ra]. The 9 symbol at the beginning of a word means con and the superscript a above the t indicates that ra have been omitted.


In this example, the omission line does not mean m or n have been omitted as one would typically expect, but that the letters irit have been removed. The line crossing the l at the end of the word signify the omission of the letters i and s giving sp[irit]ual[is].