Palaeography Boot Camp: Script Samples

This page was created in January 2022 to support an undergraduate course called Material Middle English, focussing on Middle English literature and manuscript culture. It gathers together the samples we will be working through during our “palaeography boot camp,” so that students can review the material later. It will grow over the course of the term; when it is complete, I will remove this notice.

If you have stumbled upon this page from outside this class, please note that this overview of script development was targeted at a particular set of interests, so there are some omissions, particularly of sub-types within scripts. I can recommend the excellent introduction at vHMML School for a more complete view. A very useful book is Michelle P. Brown, A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 (London: British Library, 1990), the source of a great deal of the information below.

Roman Square Capitals

Image based on one uploaded by Mark Cartwright, 16 June 2013: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

Roman Square Capitals were typically used in monumental format, as above on the Arch of Titus. In class we looked at the Codex Aureus, a 4th-century manuscript of the work of Virgil, part of which is in the Vatican and can be viewed through their digital site (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. lat. 3256). Another example is from a collection of fragments, including from the works of Virgil, from St Gall (St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1394). The picture below is from the sample we transcribed in class.

St Gallen, Stiftisbibliothek Cod. Sang. 1384, p. 15; e-codices, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license

The script survives as a display script in later manuscripts. Below are two examples. The first is from the Benedictional of St Aethelwold, which dates from 963 – 984 (London, British Library, Additional MS 49598); the second is from the Vespasian Psalter, from the second quarter of the 8th century (London, British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian A.i). In this manuscript, the Roman Square Capitals are a hybrid, a combination of square and cursive forms.

London, British Library Additional MS 49598, fol. 70r. By permission of the British Library
London, British Library Cotton MS Vespasian A i, fol. 140v. By permission of the British Library

Below is another page from the St Gall manuscript we worked with in class, with some of the notae communes (abbreviations for common elements of Latin) circled; in this case, dots are being used after q to incidate the enclytic -que (and). Other common elements are -bus, -m, and -n.

St Gallen, Stiftisbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1384, p. 15; e-codices, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license

Rustic Capitals

London, British Library Cotton MS Vespasian A i, fol. 106v. By permission of the British Library

The other main Roman book hand is called Rustic Capitals. As with Roman Square Capitals, surviving late antique examples are found in copies of the works of Virgil, such as the Vatican Virgil (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. lat. 3225) and the Vergilius Romanus (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. lat. 3867). The Vespasian Psalter, discussed above as an example of an 8th-century manuscript that uses Roman Square Capitals for some of its display script, also uses Rustic Capitals from time to time, as in the heading in the image above.

St Gallen, Stiftisbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 152, p. 3; e-codices, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license

The image on the left is another example of the same practice, this one from St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 152, a 9th-century collection of works by figures such as Augustine and Gregory the Great.

Notice that these 8th- and 9th-century manuscripts, while they use Late Antique scripts, separate the words. The Late Antique examples of both Roman Square Capitals and Rustic Capitals, on the other hand, write in scriptio (scriptura) continua, with no word separation.

Uncial

London, British Library, Harley MS 1775, fol. 232. By permission of the British Library

The next script we looked at was Uncial, a majuscule (all capital letters) script used for high-end production, such as in the manuscript above, The Harley Gospels (London, British Library, Harley MS 1775), made in northern Italy in the 6th century. Uncial was used chiefly from the 4th to the 8th centuries.

We discussed the use of the script in the great pandects (complete Bible codices) made at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow under the rule of Ceolfrith, who was abbot there from 690 – 716. The example to the right is a fragment from one of these. One of the three Bibles survives intact: the Codex Amiatinus (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiat. 1), sent as a gift to the Pope in 716.

These examples indicate division, not by words, but by clauses and phrases: this is called per cola et commata.

Below is another text probably made at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, also written in Uncial: this is the St Cuthbert Gospel (London, British Library Additional MS 89000), so called because it was found in the coffin of St Cuthbert.

Note the abbreviations in the example below, indicated by a line above the letters: ds for Deus, sps for spiritus, and di for dei. An online resource for understanding manuscript abbreviations is the digitized version of A. Capelli, Dizionario di Abbreviature Latini ed Italiani (Milan, 1912).

London, British Library, Additional MS 37777, fol. 1v. By permission of the British Library
London, British Library, Additional MS 89000, fol. 1r. By permission of the British Library

Half-Uncial

St Gallen, Stiftisbibliothek Cod. Sang. 1395, p. 26; e-codices, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license

Uncial is a majuscule script, meaning its forms are mostly what we would call upper-case. Half-Uncial is a minuscule script: as the lesson on the vHMML School site notes, it is “recognizably the ancestor of our modern lower-case alphabet.” It developed in the Late Antique period, and was widely used for less high-grade books.

In class we looked at Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. lat. 3375 (fol. 29r), a 7th-century manuscript. The sample above is from St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1395, collection of manuscript fragments from St Gall: this page is from an Italian manuscript of the early 5th century.

To the left is part of the slide I showed in class, comparing some of the significant letter forms that can be used to distinguish Uncial (on the left) from Half-Uncial (on the right).

I also showed some images of the ductus (order and direction) of both scripts. Those were taken from Michelle P. Brown and Patricia Lovett, The Historical Source Book for Scribes (London: British Library, 1999).

We discussed the aspect of scripts; that is, how one describes their general appearance.

National Hands

Half-Uncial was important in the development of what are called the National Hands – those scripts associated with various groups that came to influence and power as the Romans retreated from much of Europe. On the left is an example of Merovingian Uncial (London, British Library, MS Burney 340) from a late-7th century manuscript from northern France: notice that it uses Rustic Capitals as a display script. On the right is an example of Corbie AB Minuscule (London, British Library, MS Harley 3063), made in the Abbey of Corbie in northern France around the end of the 8th or the beginning of the 9th centuries.

London, British Library, Burney MS 304, fol. 11r. By permission of the British Library
London, British Library, Harley MS 3043, fol. 126r. By permission of the British Library

This close-up shows some of the unusual letter forms found in Corbie AB minuscule. Look at the a in the first word (Beatus) and the b in the fifth word in the first line (agrabat)

We also looked at examples of Luxeuil Minuscule and Visigothic Minuscule. The sample on the left (London, British Library, Additional MS 11878) comes from the Abbey of Luxeuil in Burgundy, which was founded by the Irish missionary Columbanus (not to be confused with Columba/ Colum Cille, the Irish missionary who founded a monastery at Iona in 563). The manuscript dates to around 732, shortly before the abbey was raided by armies from Al-Andalus (the deaths of most of the community led to the decline of the script). The example on the right is the Silos Apocalypse (London, British Library, Additional MS 11695), made at the Benedictine abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos in northern Spain between 1091 and 1099.

London, British Library, Additional MS 37777, fol. 1v. By permission of the British Library
London, British Library, Additional MS 37777, fol. 1v. By permission of the British Library