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Roman and Early Medieval Scripts:

The Origins of the Carolingian Scripts

The following are samples of the major late Roman and early medieval scripts. They present some of the sources for the origin of Carolingian scripts, especially Caroline Minuscule.

 Roman Square Capitals: from a funerary altar of the 1st century A.D. The name Square Capital has been given to the most formal Roman majuscule script. It was used primarily in formal inscriptions. See for example the frieze on the exterior of the Pantheon or the attic of the Arch of Titus. It is only rarely found in manuscripts. The extant manuscripts with square capitals are all copies of Virgil dating from the 4th or 5th centuries.

These samples are taken from E. A. Lowe, Handwriting, Rome, 1969.

 Rustic Capitals: "Medici Vergil", written probably in Rome before 494 (Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana 39.1) Rustic Capitals were the formal bookscript of the Romans. The Vatican Vergil, a deluxe manuscript from the end of the fourth or early fifth century, is written in Rustic Capitals.
 Uncial: New Testament, written probably at Capua about 546 (Fulda, Landesbibliothek I). Perhaps developing in second half of the third century, the uncial script gains popularity during the fourth century. Significantly a large number of the extant uncial texts were Christian manuscripts. Uncial would supplant the rustic capitals as the most popular script from the fifth century.
 Half-Uncial: Augustine (Bamberg, Stasstsbiliothek B. IV). The half-uncial script was the nearest rival to the uncial script in popularity from the fifth to the seventh century.
Irish Majuscule: Book of Kells, late 8th or early 9th century (Dublin, Trinity College 58 (A. I. 6)) The Insular scripts, most especially the Irish Majuscules, were the most distinctive scripts to develop between the Roman and Carolingian period. Develop in Ireland, these scripts spread throughout the British Isles during the Early Middle Ages. They would begin to be replaced by the Caroline minuscule during the 10th century.
 Luxeuil Script: Gregory the Great, Moralia, written probably at the beginning of the eighth century (Verona, Biblioteca Capitolare XL (38)) Developed in the monastery of Luxeuil, this script developed as a book script out of the so-called Merovingian Charter script. This latter script in turn had developed out of the late Roman cursive scripts.

Carolingian Scripts


Sulpicius Severus (Quedlinburg, Gymnasisalbibliothek 79, fol 109v)


Sulpicius Severus (Quedlinburg, Gymnasisalbibliothek 79, fol 113v)

The samples above come from a ninth century Carolingian manuscript of a text by Sulpicius Severus. The page on the left opening a new text is composed of a variety different scripts, and is a good example of the Carolingian revival of older forms. From the previous samples, try to identify the different scripts included on this page. The page on the right except for the two lines following "IIII" is written in the text known as Caroline Minuscule. Notice the clear hierarchy of the different scripts in relationship to the hierarchy of the text.

James J. John, "Latin Paleography," in Medieval Studies: an Introduction, James M. Powell, ed, pp. 21-24: The Caroline minuscule lasted more than four centuries in its original incarnation and then, largely as the result of its introduction into printing as the roman type font in the 1460s, has lasted almost six more centuries since it was revived by the Renaissance humanists shortly after 1400. Optimists have called it one of mankind's permanent acquisitions. Other Latin scripts may have lasted even longer, but no other has so long been so widely used. The earliest dated surviving examples of the script are found in a Bible copied at Corbie in the 770s at the order of Abbot Maurdramm and in some dedicatory verses added to an Evangelistary copied in the entourage of Charlemagne between 781 and 783..... [By the early ninth century] the script rapidly spread over all but the southern extremes of the Carolingian Empire. By the mid-ninth century, it had supplanted all other text scripts within this area.... The abbey of Tours, whatever its role in the original development of Caroline minuscule, played an important part in this rapid dissemination [the example above is from Tours]....

E.A. Lowe, Handwriting, p. 29: This new type [Caroline Minuscule] based on half-uncial, whose distinctive features was the elimination of cursive elements, must have won the warm approval of Charlemagne and Alcuin. For the school in which it was to reach its greatest perfection....was the school directly under Charlemagne's patronage, in the Abbey where Alcuin was Abbot (796-804) -- the school of St. Martin at Tours....

The orderliness, simplicity, clarity, and dignity of the new script were virtues that made a special appeal to a man like Charlemagne, who, as we know, was not above taking a profound interest in the labours of scribes. To the royal approbation was added that of Alcuin. He too was in a position to appreciate the new minuscule, whose special quality of legibility contrasted so favourably with the eccentricities of his native Anglo-Saxon hand. This double sanction gave to the script the greatest possible prestige. Among his other reforms Charlemagne had ordered a new and standard text of the Benedictine Rule, and a revision of the Vulgate and the liturgy; and these revised versions, everywhere in demand, became as it were the apostles and propagators of the new script. This, then, is the meaning of the so-called Caroline 'reform.'

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