Volume III | Chapter 12 | The Non-Runic InscriptionsNext Back to catalogue index
by John Higgitt

The twelve surviving pre-Conquest stone monuments with inscriptions in Latin lettering in York, Ryedale, and the East Riding of Yorkshire, illustrate an interesting range of types of both pre-Viking and late Anglo-Saxon epigraphy. They are individually described in the catalogue entries below, but considered collectively they are an important source of evidence for the cultural history of this area.

In all cases the alphabets used can be classified as capitals (see Note on Capitals below) rather than as Insular half uncial, which is also known as Insular majuscule (Okasha 1968; Brown 1982, 101).

The seven inscriptions from York present a rare and valuable opportunity, comparable to that given by the twin centres of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, co. Durham, (Higgitt 1979), for studying the epigraphic traditions of a major ecclesiastical centre. Five of the York inscriptions, all skilfully executed on well carved monuments, can be considered together.

Three of these (Minster 20–22; Ills. 80, 86, 91) are on fragments of a well-known Northumbrian type of grave-marker or memorial stone decorated with an incised cross. As on examples from Hartlepool, Lindisfarne, and Monkwearmouth, the inscriptions are set horizontally in the four fields defined by the cross and the incised or moulded border (Okasha 1971, pls. 48, 76–8, 80, 91). These monuments have close affinities with the series in Ireland but are distinguished by the careful shaping of their slabs (Lionard 1961; Cramp 1984, i , 5–7). The type probably derives from a continental tradition. Recent excavations at San Vincenzo al Volturno, Italy, have shown that quite closely comparable rectangular inscribed grave-markers with incised crosses and with inscriptions in horizontal lines above and below the cross-arms were used in southern Italy around the year 800 (Ill. 924) (Mitchell forthcoming). The similarities between the examples in Northumbria and those at San Vincenzo point to a common origin for the type on the continent, probably in Italy. 9

The texts on two of the York slabs with incised crosses (Minster 21–2) were clearly in Latin. Minster 21 probably carried the memorial formula orate pro anima, which was used elsewhere in York (on Minster 42). Enough of the text of Minster 22 remains to show that it was a short, perhaps metrical, epitaph. The surviving opening of the inscription on Minster 20, which consists of an Old English personal name, was also presumably memorial in intention.

The lettering on all three slabs is neatly cut with slight serifs but with little or no modelling. The letter forms on Minster 21–2 either follow those of 'Roman capitals' (see Note on Capitals below) or are comparatively restrained variations on them. They are not closely datable. There are none of the more fantastic capitals or the characteristically Insular forms found, for example, on some of the inscriptions from Lindisfarne or in the display script of the Lindisfarne Gospels (Okasha 1968, 326–7; idem 1971, pls. 76–7, 80, 83; Kendrick et al. 1960, ii , 75–7). In their restraint and 'Romanness', or at least in their lack of Insular characteristics, they can be compared with the group of early inscriptions from Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, co. Durham, with 'Roman' characteristics (Higgitt 1979).

If, as seems likely, the designer of the lettering on Minster 22 used the Greek letter pi for Latin P, a number of parallels can be found in Insular lettering of the eighth and ninth centuries. The occasional use of Greek letters in Insular display scripts (Alexander 1978, ills. 39, 49, 70, 148, 269) was a way of expanding the range of available forms in lettering that seems to have been valued for its variety. Perhaps, too, it was thought to impart a learned look to the text. It would in that case be analogous to the conscious adoption of Graecisms in Latin writing. This is a common feature in Insular Latin. In the context of York, Alcuin's comparatively modest use of Greek vocabulary, and the dedication of a great church at York in 780 to Alma Sophia, come to mind as further instances of superficial Hellenism (Alcuin 1982, c–ci; Morris 1986).

The lettering of Minster 20 is a little more elongated and two or possibly three of its forms depart further from 'pure' Roman forms. These characteristics give its surviving lettering a flavour that is rather more Insular than that of Minster 21–2.

The other two inscribed stones from York that belong to this same general context are St Mary Bishophill Junior 5 (Ill. 234) and St Leonard's Place 1 (Ill. 365). These are both fragments of free-standing crosses. The St Leonard's Place fragment belongs to the group of stone crosses (at Hexham in Northumberland, at Hornby and Lancaster in Lancashire, at Ripon, West Riding, and at Whitby and Wycliffe, North Riding) on which an inscription is a major feature of one of the broad faces of the cross-shaft (Cramp 1984, i , 174–6, ii , pl. 167; Higgitt 1986, 130). The fragmentary Latin text commemorates more than one saint. The placing of an inscription in the head of a cross can be compared with a significant number of Anglo-Saxon cross-heads, and one each from Wales and Ireland. One example was found at Dewsbury, West Riding, and there are two from Carlisle in Cumbria, perhaps as many as eight from Whitby, and possibly another on a lost fragment from Bewcastle, Cumberland, which probably formed part of a cross-head. With the exception of Bewcastle, these are, like Bishophill Junior 5, comparatively small in scale, and their cross-head texts would have been near eye level. None of these, however, matches the arrangements of this York cross-head exactly (Bailey and Cramp 1988, 172–3, ills. 196, 200, 202; Higgitt 1986, 127, 130, 138, 143). The text of Bishophill Junior 5, which seems to be a short prayer to a saint, has been given an honorific emphasis by its prominent placing in the centre of the cross-head. In their fragmentary state it is not quite clear whether these two crosses should be classed as funerary memorials or as examples of crosses associated in some way with saints, a practice for which there is most evidence in the Irish tradition (Higgitt 1986, 129, 135, 144–5).

The poetic diction and the use of metre on the Bishophill Junior 5 cross (and perhaps also on York 22) indicate that York was a centre in which there were some well educated people at the time these inscriptions were drafted. There is an intriguing passage in Alcuin's Versus de Patribus, Regibus et Sanctis Euboracensis Ecclesiae which speaks of the many ornamenta with titulis . . . venustis, presumably, that is, with beautiful inscriptions, given to the church at York by the second bishop Wilfrid, a former monk of Whitby who died in 744 (Alcuin 1982, 96). This is elegantly vague but, whatever the nature of the ornamenta, it shows an appreciation of inscriptions in eighth-century York. Indeed Alcuin's taste for epigraphic verse may owe something to his training in York as well as to his continental experience (Duemmler 1881, 304–47 passim). The learned character of the Bishophill inscription is underlined by its similarity in its delicate scale, its layout, and its use of lightly incised ruled guide-lines, to manuscript display script. (None of the other four early inscriptions from York preserves incised guide-lines but the four parallel incised lines on the otherwise blank face of Minster 18 could perhaps have been intended as guide-lines for an incised or painted inscription.)

No surviving early medieval manuscripts can be attributed with any certainty to York, but the five York inscriptions considered so far may give some indication of the kind of display script that was favoured by York scribes. The use of Roman capitals and lack of exclusively Insular forms on the stones may indicate that at this time the principal book-script written at York was the continental uncial rather than the Insular half uncial. The situation would then resemble that at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, co. Durham, in their early decades, when a fairly pure Roman capital was used for inscriptions and uncial for books (Parkes 1982; Higgitt 1979). The lettering of these York inscriptions would be appropriate for a date around the eighth century.

A consideration of the epigraphy of early medieval York should also take account of the inscribed eighth-century Anglo-Saxon helmet recently excavated in Coppergate in the city (Tweddle 1983; idem 1984; and for a discussion of the inscription, see Binns, Norton and Palliser forthcoming). It is a portable object and so York need not be its place of origin. Furthermore, even if the helmet was made in York, the secular metalworkers who made it were probably quite separate from the masons who worked for the York clergy. The Christian apotropaic text in Latin and the Insular decorative capitals must, however, at least ultimately, have been supplied by ecclesiastics who made use of an Insular display script in their manuscripts. The lettering on the helmet has pronounced wedge-shaped serifs and includes a typically Insular form of M consisting of three verticals bisected by a horizontal. The serifs and letter forms can be compared, in a general way, with decorative capitals of the sort found in the Lindisfarne Gospels or on the Ardagh Chalice (Kendrick et al. 1960, ii , 75–7; Gray 1986, 51–66, 225, figs. 54, 57, 59). They are markedly more Insular in character than the lightly serifed and more 'Roman' lettering of most of the earlier York inscriptions on stone, as far as it can be judged in its fragmentary state. What is left of the inscription on Minster 20 does, however, hint at a greater openness to Insular forms. It is not impossible that the lettering on the helmet was designed by a York scribe but it was almost certainly not designed by one of those whose work is reflected in the inscriptions on stone.

The other monument with inscriptions in Latin lettering in this region that can confidently be ascribed to the pre-Viking period is the Hackness cross (Ills. 454–63, 466). It resembles the cross from Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire, in the length of its inscriptions and in the combination of Latin lettering and runes. The inscriptions were carefully and symmetrically arranged in relation to the carved areas. The exceptional quantity of text, the use of at least four alphabets, and the Latin texts which apparently address a holy abbess seem to reflect the interests of a learned monastic community, presumably that described by Bede at Hackness (Bede 1969, iv , 23, 412). The surviving Latin lettering resembles that on the pre-Viking inscribed monuments in York in its lack of exclusively Insular forms.

Minster 42 (Ill. 181) is harder to date. The uneven lettering was cut on to a reused Roman slab and it differs markedly in quality from the York inscriptions considered so far. The skills apparent in those inscriptions were obviously not available when this one was cut. The text was plainly memorial. The linguistic forms of the personal name are uncertain and so are of no help in dating the inscription. The first element of the name could be Old English, but it is also possible that the name represents a British development of a Latin name, such as Constans or Constantius. The informality and lack of professionalism to be seen in this inscription would suggest a date either before or after the heyday (around the eighth century) of the Anglian church in York, probably represented here by the group of inscriptions discussed above. Minster 42 was found in situ in the tenth- to eleventh-century phase of the cemetery under York Minster and so a dating, after the disruptions of the ninth century, is most likely. Some continuity with the ecclesiastical culture of around the eighth century is indicated by the use on Minster 42 of the orate pro anima formula, which it almost certainly shared with Minster 21. It is most likely that it was cut some time between the early group of York inscriptions and the late pre-Conquest revival in epigraphy represented at York by the inscription at St Mary Castlegate (no. 7; Ill. 312).

The remaining inscriptions belong to the tenth and eleventh centuries. (That at Kirkdale carries a dating formula which assigns it to the period 1055–65 or shortly after.) They differ in several respects from those on the pre-Viking monuments. Page has studied these inscriptions to see what light they throw on the question of the survival of the Scandinavian language (Page 1971). All five, if nineteenth-century readings of the Old Byland inscription are accepted, carried one or more personal names that are Scandinavian in origin. Apart from that there is only slight evidence of Scandinavian linguistic influence on their texts: at Aldbrough, and possibly at Kirkdale and Old Byland (Page 1971, 175 n. 3, 178–80).

All of these inscriptions are architectural. Four of them (at Kirkdale, Aldbrough, Great Edstone, and Old Byland; Ills. 568, 418, 451, 729–30) were carved on or around sundials. The other inscription, in the church of St Mary Castlegate in York (no. 7; Ill. 312), is on a rectangular wall-slab and it records the names of the patrons or founders of the church, and details of its dedication, in a combination of Old English and Latin.

The texts on the Aldbrough and Kirkdale sundials are in Old English. So also is the principal text on that at Great Edstone. Aldbrough shows the name of the patron or founder and his wife. Kirkdale's text is unusually long. It is concerned with the founder, the dedication and date of the church, and the makers and function of the sundial. Great Edstone also carries a maker formula in Old English and an identification, in Latin, of the slab as a sundial. The Old English texts vary in the ways in which they express similar ideas. They do not seem to be following fixed epigraphic formulae, except in the me wrohte formula of Kirkdale and Great Edstone. The inscription on the sundial at Old Byland is now almost totally effaced, but nineteenth-century rubbings and copies suggest that it included the Latin maker formula me fecit, the equivalent of the me wrohte of Kirkdale and Great Edstone, although it is possible that it carried the sense of founding or commissioning rather than making.

Unlike the presumably earlier inscriptions in York and Hackness the lines of the later inscriptions are all set between deeply incised and clearly visible guide-lines. The use of pronounced guide-lines of this sort can be seen on a number of Anglo-Saxon inscriptions on stone (Okasha 1971, pls. 1, 2b, 8, 39, 41, 64, 73, 110, 133, 146). The earliest of these are of about the eighth century and the type continued beyond the Conquest.

The lettering of the inscriptions at St Mary Castlegate, Aldbrough, and Kirkdale, can be described as rather unrefined capitals, most of which are Roman in form or unremarkable early medieval variants of Roman forms. (The forms of the letters on the inscription at Old Byland are too uncertain to be commented on here.) The lettering of the larger text at Great Edstone contrasts with the other three in its more controlled and regular appearance, which is perhaps due to the example of southern English inscriptions or manuscript lettering.

The fashion for displaying information relating to the foundation or building of a church on a sundial set into the wall of the church continued in this area beyond the Norman Conquest. The dial over the south door of the church at Weaverthorpe (see Appendix B, p. 000) is probably to be dated to the early twelfth century (Bilson 1922, 55, 57–9, 69, figs. 2–3). Like Kirkdale it records the dedication of the church, the name of the patron for whom it was built, and the date. It calls the church a monasterium, the Latin equivalent of Old English minster (seen at St Mary Castlegate and Kirkdale). Unlike Kirkdale and Aldbrough the text is in Latin. Latin was, however, used for one of the Great Edstone texts and perhaps also for the inscription at Old Byland, which seems also, like Weaverthorpe, to have used the verb fecit. At Weaverthorpe deeply incised guide-lines still separate the lines. The poorly planned layout, which leads to the inscription ending for lack of space in the middle of a word, is even more marked than at Kirkdale. The letter forms are not very different from those on the pre-Conquest sundials, but the latter lack the line-serifs to be seen on some letters at Weaverthorpe.


The pre-Conquest inscriptions in Latin lettering in the area covered by this volume fall into two main groups which were probably separated by the Viking period. The cruder letter-cutting on York 42 probably falls between the two groups. The main groups are epigraphically distinct and they differ in patronage and purpose. The earlier examples are memorials and crosses inscribed in Latin and produced for literate ecclesiastical communities in York and Hackness. Two at least of the York inscriptions, and those at Hackness, make a conscious display of learning. These earlier inscriptions were probably mostly more private than public in intention.

The five late inscriptions are architectural and four at least are wholly or partly in the vernacular. All four seem secular rather than ecclesiastical in their concern to record the names of craftsmen and patrons. Probably few of the laity could read these texts but laymen were now aspiring to see their names in stone. Part of the function of these later inscriptions was to serve as secular status symbols.


The capitals used in Anglo-Saxon inscriptions vary considerably and it is not possible to isolate a single distinctive Anglo-Saxon type of capital (Okasha 1968; Okasha 1971). For the purpose of description and analysis it is helpful to compare examples with the forms of 'Roman capitals'. Roman capitals were made known throughout the Roman Empire through their use in inscriptions. Early Christian and early medieval book and epigraphic scripts developed away from this capital script but Roman capitals continued to exert an influence, especially in Italy. At certain periods and in certain places there seem to have been attempts to reproduce comparatively 'pure' Roman capitals in inscriptions and in manuscript display scripts, most famously during the Carolingian period (Gray 1986; Bischoff 1986, 78–85).

When reference is made in discussion of letter forms to 'Roman capital' forms, this is not meant to imply a conscious imitation of Roman forms, although it is possible that 'purer' or 'more Classical' Roman forms were sometimes deliberately adopted because they were thought to look more Roman. I have argued that this was the case at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, co. Durham, in their early years (Higgitt 1979).

To avoid ambiguity the 'Roman' or 'Latin' alphabet is here referred to as the 'Latin alphabet', in order to distinguish it, regardless of letter forms, from other alphabets such as runes.

I am very grateful to Dr John Mitchell of the University of East Anglia for drawing these similarities to my attention and for showing me his draft discussion of the inscribed monuments of San Vincenzo.

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