Posted by: mattcolvin | February 16, 2013

Cadel Calligraphy


Of late, I have been experimenting with Cadel-style capitals in my calligraphy. These are extremely ornate letters, the ne plus ultra of handwritten lettering. If you can pull off this style of lettering, you’ll get some very gratifying reactions from your friends: “Did you make that? Really? You did it freehand? Get out of here!” Isn’t that the response every calligrapher hopes for? (Also the opposite of the condemnation so often applied to modern art: “I could make that.”)



The reason for the impressive reaction from viewers is that cadel letters (plural, cadeaux) appear to be impossibly ornate and complicated. But they are like the capitals of Corinthian columns in Greek architecture: the complexity is built around a simple frame, so that the letters are actually much simpler to construct than they appear to be. For instance, here is a Christmas card with two cadels, a C and an M.


There are actually only three critical “structural” strokes in this M. The rest are ornament. They stand in relation to the main strokes as figured bass continuo does to the written score in Baroque music: the calligrapher, having practiced various swirls, loops, hairline tracery (fimbriation), and other ornaments, is free to apply them ad libitum as he sees fit. So long as they are deployed in close relation to the letter’s main structure, the result will be acceptable:


Here I have loosely imitated a cadel M of Marc’ Antonio Rossi’s 1598 calligraphy sampler entitled Giardino de Scrittori (available as a PDF on Google books). Here is another initial cadel from the same book:


Wikipedia gives a full sample cadel alphabet in Rossi’s hand:


Rossi was not the inventor of cadels, however. That honor appears to belong to Jean Flamel, the secretary of the Duc de Berry (third son of Charles V of France, died 1416). This is the same Duc de Berry for whom the Limbourgh Brothers illuminated the famous illuminated prayerbook, the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. He is, incidentally, not to be confused with his contemporary, the manuscript-seller Nicholas Flamel (d. 1418). Harry Potter fans, take note: Nicholas is the Flamel who developed a (baseless) reputation as an alchemist in the 17th century. Here is a sample of Jean Flamel’s work:


I find Flamel’s work to be illegible and less well-constructed than Rossi’s letters, so I am taking the latter as my model as I practice.

Some web resources:

Jean Frederic Crevon has posted some good discussion of cadels on a French calligraphy forum. It’s worth clicking through it here. Here’s a sample letter from that page, showing what is possible with a little creativity:


I also found online some notes about cadels in a PDF on a curious website belonging to Catherine Helm-Clark, PhD. Near as I can tell from reading her website, Dr. Helm-Clark is a consulting geologist and former chairwoman of the Grand Council of the Society for Creative Anachronism. The actual information in the notes apparently derives from a lecture given by Laura Stumpp. About her, I have been unable to find any information, except that she is a contributor to an email list devoted to the Society for Creative Anachronism. Apparently, SCA members are interested in calligraphy, and are serious enough about it to do research and put it up on the Internet.


  1. Wikipedia gives a full sample cadel alphabet in Rossi’s hand. It is missing the ‘I’ and ‘K’
    I have a very clean picture of the ‘K’ but, can’t attache it to this window

  2. Yep, some folks in the SCA are very interested in Calligraphy and Illumination, many going so far as to make their own inks and paints, and using feather quills. 😀 It’s a lot of fun. There are lots of pics of scribal work online, but here’s a gorgeous example of a high-level scroll.

    Another great example of high level artistry:

    Anyway, thought you’d enjoy seeing some more examples of SCA scribal accomplishments!

  3. beautiful !

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