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Manuscript Studies
Medieval and Early Modern

IV.ii. Paleography: Historical Notes

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These notes are cribbed primarily from three sources: the various introductory passages in Leonard Boyle's Medieval Latin Paleography, the essay on "Paleography" by James John in Powell's Medieval Studies, and the Introduction to Petti's English Literary Hands. There is also an excellent general introduction to the study of paleography, with samples of various scripts, in the Encyclopedia Britannica (under "Writing").

Roughly, one can define six main periods of Latin lettering:

A. Roman scripts

Square capitals: developed for use in inscriptions (carving in stone requires straight lines; it is difficult to carve curves); apart from a few fragments of Virgil, it does not appear as a bookhand in Roman times, but it is the ancester of our modern majuscule letters. Sometimes used in medieval manuscripts for titles; revived in the Renaissance and continues in use now.

Rustic capitals: a Roman majuscule bookhand of the first to sixth centuries; revived for a time in England in eighth century and in France in ninth. It is the ancestor of all modern Western European scripts.

Cursive capitals (Roman cursives): the documentary hand of the first to sixth centuries; developed into a French documentary script in seventh.

B. Pre-Caroline scripts

Uncial: from Latin "uncia," "inch-high." A formal, majuscule bookhand used especially in Greek and Latin manuscripts from the fourth to the ninth centuries.

Half-uncial: a cursive, minuscule bookhand used in Latin manuscripts from the fifth to eighth centuries. Despite its name, it is no longer considered to be derived from uncial.

Cursive minuscule: a cursive, minuscule documentary hand used in Latin manuscripts from the fourth to ninth centuries.

Runes (the "futhorc"): characters of an ancient Germanic script, perhaps developed from a northern Italian version of the alphabet. Runes are very angular shapes, well-suited for chiseling in stone, but not suitable for rapid (and, so, cursive) writing. The name "rune" means "secret," and the runes appear to have had magical properties. The name "futhorc" is derived from the names of the first six letters (just as the word "alphabet" is made out of the names of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, "alpha" and "beta").

Insular: a minuscule script used in Latin manuscripts, developed in sixth century in Ireland (from half-uncial) and brought to England by Columba and the Irish ca. 560; it was then adapted (in the Old English period) for transcribing English. a) Insular Round ("Insular Half-uncial," "Insular majuscule"): the earlier form, used in the "Book of Kells" etc.; in decline by ninth century. b) Insular Pointed ("Insular minuscule"): the feet of the descenders end in a point; much narrower, more vertical than Round, and the letters touch more often; used from about the 730s; spread to Germany by missionaries. Insular faded out after the Norman Conquest, after which the scribes in English were usually French trained, but it can be found in vernacular texts as late as the thirteenth century, and is still used in Gaelic texts.

Various other national varieties throughout Europe (much diversity in seventh/eighth century.): Visigothic minuscule (Spain and southern France); Beneventan minuscule (Benedictine monastery at Monte Casino, southern Italy); Merovingian scripts (through France); etc.

C. Caroline scripts

Caroline (or Carolingian) minuscule: Alcuin of York, appointed by Charlemagne to be Abbot of St. Martin's in Tours (and to help lead his program of education and book production), is responsible for "reviving and purifying" older bookhands (the scriptorium at St. Martin's developed forms of Rustic capitals, Uncials, Half-uncials) and of introducing Caroline minuscule (presumably based upon some local script, but the model upon which it is based has never been discovered). Caroline minuscule (earliest extant example is from the 770s) spread rapidly to other scriptoria throughout Europe, sweeping away the variety of national scripts, and it is one of the most common scripts in Latin documents in England from the tenth to thirteenth centuries. It was later revived in the Renaissance and is the basis of one of the Humanist hands (and was adapted by the printing press and forms the basis of modern printed minuscules).

D. Gothic scripts

Lieftinck, in Nomenclature (1954) attempted a scientific and consistent terminology of Gothic bookhands; his approach was to define three basic "types" each of which appears in three different "qualities":

D.1. Formal Gothic ("Black Letter," "Textura," "littera textualis formata"; in thirteenth century called "littera psalterialis" or "littera missalis"): Primarily used for sumptuous liturgical books; the heavy lines give it the "blackness" of "Black Letter" and the tapestry-like quality which gives it the name "Textura." It shows a tendency for the letters to touch and overlap. It was developed in the thirteenth century, and it may owe something to the twelfth-century Renaissance in education (much as the printing industry in fifteenth century was made economically viable by the universities and their need for books): the explosion in book production, the need for greater efficiency in writing, the development of the pecia system (cf. "piece") for copying texts, etc. (Caroline not an easy or fast script). Angular letters, strong sense of verticality, heavy shading, biting (overlapping) of facing bows.

D.2. Gothic cursives:

Anglicana: a particular Gothic cursive hand, particular to England of the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (the term originates with M. B. Parkes); originally a documentary hand, it came to be used as a bookhand. Parkes' book on Cursive Book Hands illustrates several varieties of Anglicana: Anglicana formata (more "formal"), Bastard Anglicana (Anglicana with Textura features), Bastard Secretary (Secretary with Anglicana features).

Secretary: introduced into England from France in the third quarter of the fourteenth century; by the sixteenth century it is the most prominent bookhand.

D.3. Gothic hybrids:

Hybrid anglicana: Anglicana with some Textura features (slightly larger than anglicana; often seen with quadrata and semi-quadrata serifs)

Hybrid secretary: Secretary with some Textura features

Lettre bâtarde: French documentary cursive survives in sixteenth "bastard Secretary" ("bâtarde angloise").

D.4. Gothic court hands:

Cancellaresca cursiva: developed in Papal chancery and spread through Europe as a documentary hand.

Cancellaresca formata: formalized chancery (sometimes used as bookhand).

Exchequer hand: English "pipe roll" hand used from twelfth century in Exchequer documents (minims look like enlarged colons: head and tail but little body).

D.4.1. Four English court hands, developed in fifteenth century (the Commonwealth under Cromwell attempted to outlaw these by Act of Parliament as medieval, royalist relics, but Chancery survived to the nineteenth century when it was finally dismissed--by Act of Parliament--in 1836):

Chancery hand: Anglicana forms, adapted in fifteenth century as a court hand in the English chancery. Survives to 1836.

Court of Commonpleas hand: Anglicana forms, adapted in fifteenth century as a court hand in the English Court of Commonpleas.

King's remembrancer hand: fifteenth century.

Lord Treasurer's remembrancer hand: fifteenth century.

E. Humanist scripts

Humanist: Formal: Humanistic Round ("Textual"; "Antiqua") Poggio Bracciolini's revival of Caroline miniscule. It carries some Gothic features (biting of curves, "e" for "æ," uncial "d," "f," and long "s" on the baseline (not extending below), "i" with dot, 2-like "r," round "s" at the end of words, etc., which help student to distinguish humanist script from true Caroline. But the easiest was to distinguish them is by shading and proportion, the material is paper not vellum, ruling is done in ink, texts known to have been composed later than thirteenth century, etc. Humanistic Round is adapted to the printing press and gives us our "Roman" font.

Humanistic Cursive: Niccolò Niccoli invented in 1420s a cursive hand which by 1501 was adapted to printing as the "italic" font, and which is the ancestor of modern handwriting.

F. Modern scripts

The knowledge of modern scripts can be useful even to a medievalist a) as part of the history, and b) because marks of ownership in manuscripts are often added at later dates, etc. However, the energy put into classifying medieval scripts has not yet been matched in the modern period, so much work remains to be done.

Copperplate ("English Round hand").

[It is my intention, when I find some time to do a bit of scanning, to add some illustrations to this page, showing samples of the scripts named here.]

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[ Course Notes: Introduction ] | [ I. Towards a definition of "manuscript studies" ] | [ I.ii. The four branches of bibliographical study ] | [ I.iii. Topics in the social history of texts ] | I.iii.a The "Rescue" of Medieval Manuscripts from Grocers and Fishmongers | [ II. Diplomatics ] | [ III. Codicology ] | [ III.ii. Decoration and Illumination ] | [ IV. Paleography ] | [ IV.ii. Historical Notes ] | [ IV.iii. Writing Implements ] | [ IV.iv. Letter Formation ] | [ IV.v. Special Characters in English Manuscripts ] | [ IV.vi. Scribal Abbreviations ] | [ IV.vii. Punctuation ] | [ IV.viii. Paleographical sample: William Herebert, OFM (early fourteenth-century England) ] | [ Herebert sample, with transcription ] | [ Herebert sample: enlargement of full page reproduced at high resolution ] | [ V. Textual analysis (James E. Thorpe) ] | [ V.ii. Scribal error ] | [ V.iii. Kinds of edition ] | [ V.iv. Examples of over emendation on insufficient grounds ] | [ VI. Linguistic competence (an example): An Outline History of the English Language ] | [ VII. Libraries and archives: ] | [ VII.ii. British Library Manuscript Collections ] | [ VII.iii. Bodleian Library Manuscript Collections ]

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© 1998, 2015 Stephen R. Reimer
English; University of Alberta; Edmonton, Canada
All rights reserved.
Created: 2 Dec. 1998; Last revised: 30 May 2015

email: Stephen.Reimer@UAlberta.Ca
URL: http://www.ualberta.ca/~sreimer/ms-course.htm