bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Trump the Merovingian

Posted in Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 25 February, 2017

Satire is a potent tool in the face of the arrogance of power. Laughter punctures pride more fatally than any righteous anger. And it has not gone unnoticed that one of the winners of the election of the latest US President has been humour itself — laughing at him, not with him. Print media have, for instance, noticed the twitter phenomenon that is Donaeld the Unready, recasting the new incumbent of the Oval Office as an Anglo-Saxon bretwalda. My own favourite is this one:

However, I want to suggest to you today that if the President is a reincarnation, his former self was not content to live in the alter orbis which was the British Isles; he was surely a denizen of mainland Europe. How can I know this? By invoking the noble art of palaeography.

trump-signatureThere are some things, of course, which are beyond satire – and that includes Donald Trump’s signature. Graphologists have had a field day with this, though I am not convinced by some of the claims, like the suggestion that it shows him to be protective of the family. I cannot see that and, instead, find it hard to avoid concluding that there is something psychotic in his willingness to overwrite not just the typed words but his own letters — look at that final p which is turned into ascender crossing over the bowl of the letter. It looks assertive but it also is self-destructive. This President unwrites himself.

That jagged motion of final p creating a pointed hat worthy of the Ku-Klux Klan serves no necessary purpose beyond ostentation: it is what palaeographers would call an otiose stroke. Such features were often produced with a turn of the nib to create a thinner or even hair-line stroke. In Trump’s handwriting, though, there is no differentiation between thick and thin, just as the straight lines are rarely combined with any curved movements of the pen. For instance, a letter like n is formed with a diagonal joining the two minims (rather than the linking it the top). There is little variation and no subtlety here.

Let us, though, consider President Trump’s approach to mise-en-page when placing that signature on an Executive Order.trump-signing-executive-order

Note how his script insists on taking up space, being equivalent to five or six lines of typed text. This is by no means unprecedented. It reminds me, for instance, of cases of Henry VII of England adding his name in large thin gothic letters below the beautiful italic of his secretary, Pietro Carmeliano (whom I have discussed on this site recently). In such instances, the royal writing looks ungainly in comparison to the script above but that serves only to enhance the impression that the monarch is emphasising his taking ownership of the page, even as he compromises its calligraphy. Its purpose is to show that the king does not need to master penmanship for he is the master of those who have done so.

Yet, that is not the only historical parallel one can draw. Over the long tradition of script, the balance between the minims (eg m and n) and the ascenders of tall letters (eg d and l) has shifted: in the bookhand promoted in the Carolingian empire, when there was an expectation of clarity of writing, a minim would be about half the size of an ascender; in late medieval culture, the gothic aesthetic which saw beauty in the uniform aspect of a page, ascenders were reduced to being often little more than residual. President Trump has decided to reject both of those practices: it seems that he feels his hands must make ascenders, and bigly. They dwarf the minims by a ratio of about 3:1. Once again, though, such a contrast is not original to him. It was a frequent habit in medieval charters, particularly on the top line. It is seen, for instances, in specimens of Merovingian chancery script, though when I mentioned this in conversation with an eminent palaeographer, she accused me of making a comparison that was slanderous to Merovingian civilization.

I would certainly not want to give the impression that this sense of proportion was confined in time or location. It was not only a habit of chanceries drawing up official documents but was also seen in certain bookhands. The example below is in many ways more elegant than anything achieved by a pen wielded in the 45th President’s hand — it knows the value of combining curves with straight strokes — but it shares an affection for extended ascenders.


Paris: BnF, MS. lat. 9427, fol. 19v

It is a famous manuscript, a lectionary from the Abbey of Luxeuil in southern Burgundy. We have several witnesses to this script which was developed in that cloister. We also have an end-date for their production: in 732, the abbey was burnt to the ground and its monks massacred by a daring raid by Muslim Moors. Do not tell that to President Trump.




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