HANDBOOK OF GREEK & LATIN PALAEOGRAPHY by Sir E M Thompson. 3rd edition, published 1906. Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co Ltd, London.


Latin Palaeography.

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We now proceed to trace the history of Latin Palæography; and the scheme which will be followed in this division of our subject may first be briefly described.

Latin majuscule writing, in its two branches of (1) Square capitals and Rustic capitals, and (2) Uncials—the most ancient forms of the Latin literary script— naturally claims our first attention. Next, the modified forms of Uncial writing, viz., the mixed hands of uncial and minuscule letters, and the later developed Half-uncial writing, will be examined. We shall then have to pass in review the various styles of Roman Cursive writing, beginning with its earliest examples, and from this we shall proceed to follow the course of the Continental National Minuscule hands, which were directly derived from that source, dovvn to the period of the reform of the Merovingian school in the reign of Charlemagne. The independent history of the early Irish and English schools forms a chapter apart. From the period of Charlemagne to the close of the fifteenth century, the vicissitudes of the literary handwritings of Western Europe will be described ; and this portion of our work will be brought to a close with some account of the Cursive writing, and particularly of the English Charter-hands of that time.

Majuscule Writing.— Capitals.

Latin Majuscule writing, as found in early MSS., is divided into two branches: writing in Capitals, and writing in Uncials. Capitals, again, are of two kinds, Square Capitals and Rustic Capitals. The most ancient Latin MSS. in existence are in Rustic Capitals ; but there is no reason to presume that the rustic hand was employed in MSS. before the square band, nay, rather, following the analogy of sculptured inscriptions, the preference as to age sbould be given to square letters.

Capital writing, in its two styles, copies the letterings of inscriptions which have been classed under the heads of "scriptura monumentalis " and "scriptura actuaria," as executed in the time of Augustus and successive emperors ← See Exempla Scripturae Epigraphicae Latinae (Corpus Inscript. Lat.) , ed. Hübner, 1885. ; the square character following generally the first, and the rustic the second.

In square capital writing the letters are generally of the same height ; but F and L are commonly exceptions. The angles are right angles, and the bases and tops and extremities are usually finished off with the fine strokes and pendants which are familiar to all in our modern copies of this type of letters.

Rustic capitals, on the other band, are, as the name implies, of a more negligent pattern, but as a style of writing for choice books they were no less carefully formed than the square capitals. But the strokes are more slender, cross-strokes are short and are more or less oblique and waved, and finials are not added to them. Being thus, in appearance, less finished as perfect letters, although accurately shaped, they have received the somewhat misleading title which distinguishes them. More than is the case with square capital writing, there is a greater tendency in certain rustic letters to rise above the line.

The fact that a large proportion of the surviving MSS. in capital letters of the best class contain the works of Virgil points to the same conclusion as that suggested by the discovery of comparatively so many copies of the Iliad of Homer in early papyri, and by the existence of the Bible in three of the most important Greek vellum codices which have descended to us : namely, that a sumptuous style of production was, if not reserved, at least more especially employed for those books which were the great works of their day. Homer in the Greek world, Virgil in the classical period of Rome, and the Bible in the early centuries of the Christian Church, filled a space to which no other books of their time could pretend. And the survival of even the not very numerous copies which we possess is an indication both that such fine M SS. were more valued and better cared for than ordinary volumes and that they must have existed in fairly large numbers. With regard to the works of Virgil and their sumptuous production, it will not be forgotten that Martial, xiv. 186, singles out a MS. of this author to be decorated with his portrait.

Of Square Capital writing of ancient date there is very little now in existence, viz., a few leaves of a MS. of Virgil, divided between the Vatican Library and Berlin, which are attributed to the close of the 4th Century (Z. W. Ex. 14) ← Zangemeister and Wattenbach, Exempla Codicum Latinorum litteris majusculis scriptorum , Heidelberg, 1876, 1879. , and a few from another MS. of the same poet, of the 4th or 5th Century, preserved in the library of St. Gall in Switzerland (Z. W. Ex. 14 a; Pal. Soc. i. pl. 208). We take a specimen from a facsimile of one of the latter :

Virgil.—4th or 5th century.
Idaliae Iucos ubi m[ollis]— | Floribus et dulci ad— | Iamque ibat dicto par[ens]—

It is certainly remarkable that this large character should still have been employed at the time to which these fragments of square-capital MSS. are attributed, so long after the classical period of Rome. The use of so inconvenient a form of writing, and one which covered so much material in the case of any work of average extent, would, it might be thought, have been entirely abandoned in favour of the more ready uncial character, or at least of the less cumbersome rustic capitals. Its continuance may be regarded as a survival of a style first employed at an early period to do honour to the great national Latin poet ; and may, in some degree, be compared with the conservative practice in the middle ages of keeping to an old style of writing for Biblical and liturgical MSS. The same remark applies also to the comparatively late employment of Rustic Capital writing under similar conditions.

This latter style of writing is found in the earliest extant Latin MSS. In some of the papyrus fragments recovered at Herculaneum it is of a character copied closely from the lettering of inscriptions on stone or metal (Z. W. Ex. 1, 2) ; in others it is of a less severe style. We give a specimen from the fragments of a poem on the Battle of Actium (Fragmenta Herculanensia, ed. W. Scott, 1885), written in light, quickly-formed letters, which must have been very generally used for literary purposes at the period of the destruction of Herculaneum in A.D. 79.

Poem on the Battle of Actium.—before A.D.79.
cervicibus . aspide . moll[em] | [somn]um . trahiturque . libidi[ne . mortis .] | brevis . hunc . sine . mor[sibus . anguis .] | [ten]ui . pars . inlita . parva . v[eneni.]

Here the words are separated from one another with the full point, as in inscriptions. Long vowels are also, in many instances, marked with an accent ; in the case of long i, the form of the accent (if accent it be) is rather that of the letter itself, and the scribe may have intended to indicate the length of the vowel by doubling it.

Specimens of nearly all the existing vellum MSS. written in rustic capital letters are represented in facsimile in the Exempla of Zangemeister and Wattenbach, the publications of the Palæographical Society, and other works. The writing on this material is of a more careful type than that which we have seen in the last facsimile from a papyrus MS. The estimation of the age of the earliest of these MSS. is necessarily a matter of uncertainty, as we have no specimen to which a date can be approximately assigned before the end of the fifth Century. But some of them may be placed earlier than that period. For example, the palimpsest fragments of the Verrine Orations of Cicero, in the Vatican Library (Z. W. Ex. 4), are generally assigned to the fourth Century. But the MSS. which before all others approach nearest in the forms of their letters to those of inscriptions, are the two famous codices of Virgil, known as the "Codex Romanus," and the "Codex Palatinus" (Z. W. Ex. 11, 12; Pal. Soc. i. pl. 113-115). In these the style of lettering found in formal inscriptions of the first Century of our era has been closely followed ; and although no one has ever thought of placing the MSS. in so remote a period, yet it has been suggested that scribes may have kept up the style without degeneration for one or two centuries, and that they may therefore be as old as the third Century. Others are of opinion that they are merely imitative, and that the Codex Romanus in particular, on account of the barbarisms of its text and the coarse character of the pictures with which it is illustrated, must be of a later date. These objections, however, are not conclusive, and taking the writing alone under judgment, there seems to be no reason for dating the MSS. later, at ail events, than the fourth Century.

The following facsimile is from the Codex Palatinus (Pal. Soc. i. pl. 115)

Virgil.—4th century.
Volvitur ater odor tectis tu[m]— | Intus saxa sonant vacuas — | Accidit haec fessis etiam fo[rtuna]— | Quae totam luctu concussit—

In this writing the contrast of the thick and fine strokes is as strongly marked as in inscriptions on stone or metal. Shortness of horizontal strokes, smallness of bows, as seen in letter R, and general lateral compression are characteristic. The formation of the letter H is easily explained by referring to the same letter in the second line of the facsimile from the poem on the Battle of Actium. It recalls the formation of the common truncated h-shaped eta in Greek papyri. The points are inserted by a later hand.

Another famous MS. of Virgil in rustic capitals is that known as the " Schedæ Vaticanæ," which is ornamented with a series of most interesting paintings in classical style, no doubt copied from more ancient prototypes (Z. W. Ex. 13; Pal. Soc. i. pl. 116, 117). It is assigned to the 4th century.

But the first rustic MS. to which an approximate date can be given is the Medicean Virgil in the Laurentian Library at Florence (Z. W. Ex. 10 ; Pal. Soc. i. pl. 86). A note at the end of the Bucolics states that the MS. was read, pointed, and corrected by the " consul ordinarius" Asterius, who held office in the year 494. Consequently, the text must have been written at or before that date. A specimen is here given :—

Virgil.—before A.D.494.
Non illum nostri possunt mutare Iabo[res.
Nec si frigoribus mediis . Hebrumque bibam[us.]
Sithoniasque nives . hiemis subeamus a[quosae.]
Nec si eum moriens . alta Liber aret in ul[mo]

Among the remaining older MSS. of this style the most important is the Codex Bembinus of Terence (Z. W. Ex. 8, 9 ; Pal. Soc. i. pl. 185) in the Vatican Library, a MS. ot the 4th or 5th Century, which takes its name from a former owner, Bernardo Bembo, in the fifteenth Century, and which is valuable on account of its annotations.

This handsome but inconvenient style of literary writing could not be expected to last, even for éditions de luxe, for a very long period. There still survives, however, one very finely executed MS., the poems of Prudentius, in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris (Z. W. Ex. 15; Pal. Soc. i. pl. 29, 30), written with great skill, but thought not to be earlier than the 6th Century. In the Turin Sedulius (Z. W. Ex. 10) of the 7th Century the rustic letters have altogethor passed out of the domain of calligraphy in its true sense, and ure rough and mis-shapen. Lastly, we may notice a MS. which, on account of its contents and history, has attracted more than usual attention—the Utrecht Psalter, which was written in rustic capitals and yet can be scarcely older than the beginning of the 9th Century. Copied from an ancient original which was illustrated with drawings, it seems that, in order to maintain the same relative arrangements of text and drawings, the scribe found it the simplest course to copy the actual character of the letters, the text thus filling the same space as the original and leaving the proper intervals for the insertion of the drawings. And yet the text was not so exactly copied as to be quite consistent with ancient usage; for titles are introduced in uncial letters—an intrusion which would have been quite impossible in the earlier and purer period of rustic capital writing. In a word, the form in which the Utrecht Psalter is cast must be regarded as accidental —a mere imitation of a style which had practically passed away.

Judging by the specimens which have survived, capital writing may be said to have ceased to exist as a literary hand for entire texts about the close of the fifth century. In the middle ages it survived, in both square and rustic styles, as an ornamental form of writing for titles and initials, and occasionally for a few pages of text. For example, in the Psalter of St. Augustine's, Canterbury, of the beginning of the 8th century, now one of the Cottonian MSS. in the British Museum, there are several prefatory leaves written in imitative rustic letters (Pal. Soc. i. pl. 19; Cat. Anc. MSS. ii. 12, 13), and in the Benedictional of Bishop Æthelwold [Pal. Soc. i. pl. 148) of the 10th century, and in a MS. of Aratus at Boulogne (Pal. Soc. i. pl. 96) written quite at the end of the 10th century, pages in the same style are to be found. In the profusely ornamented MSS. of the Gospels and other sacred texts of the period of the Carlovingian kings the bountiful use of capitals is a prominent feature of their decoration.


The second form of Majuscule writing employed as a literary hand for the texts of MSS. is that to which the name of Uncial has been given. See above, p. 117. It is a modification of the square capital writing. As the latter was the easiest form to carve on stone or metal, so was it more simple, when writing letters with the reed or pen on a material more or less soft, to avoid right angles by the use of curves. Uncial, then, is essentially a round hand, and its principal characteristic letters are the curved forms adehm. The main vertical strokes generally rise above or fall below the line of writing. This style appears to have come into common use as a literary hand at least as early as the fourth Century. How much earlier it may have been employed must remain uncertain ; but as in the most ancient specimens it appears in a fully developed shape, it is not improbable that it was used for books even in the third Century. The period of the growth of the hand has been determined, from the occurrence of isolated uncial forms in inscriptions, etc., to lie between the latter part of the second Century and the latter part of the fourth Century. ← Z. W. Exempla, p. 5. Uncials were used in Latin inscriptions in Africa in the third Century. The Makter inscription (Pal. Soc. ii. pl. 49), which is certainly as early as the fourth Century, is in uncials with some small letters. From the fifth to the eighth Century it was the ordinary literary hand of the first rank. In MSS. of the fifth and sixth centuries, and particularly in those of the earlier Century, the uncial writing is exact, and is generally formed with much beauty and precision of stroke ; in the seventh Century it becomes more artificial ; in the course of the eighth Century it rapidly degenerates, and breaks down into a rough, badly-formed hand, or, when written with care, is forced and imitative. As a test letter of age the letter mhas been selected, which in its earliest forms appears with the first limb straight, or at least not curved inwards at the bottom, as it is seen in later examples. And the shape of the letteremay also be of assistance for determining the period of a MS. : in the earlier centuries, the cross-stroke is consistently placed high, but when the hand begins to give way in its later stages the stroke varies in position, being sometimes high, sometimes low, in the letter. In fact, as is the case with the handwriting of all periods and countries, the first examples of an established hand are the purest and best ; the letters are formed naturally, and therefore consistently.

Of MSS. in uncial writing there are still a not inconsiderable number extant, and the earliest and most important have been represented by facsimiles in varions palæographical works. The palimpsest fragments of Cicero De Republica (Z. W. Ex. 17; Pal. Soc. i. pl. 160) in the Vatican Library are generally quoted as the most ancient example, and are assigned to the 4th Century. The letters are massive and regular, and the columns of writing are very narrow. A few lines will give an idea of the amount of material which must have been required for the whole work, there being only fifteen such lines in each column, or thirty in a page.

Cicero, De Republica.—4th century.
qui bona nec | putare nec ap | pellare soleat | quod earum | rorum vide[atur]

Probably of a nearly equal age are the fragments of the Vercelli Gospels (Z. W. Ex. 20), a MS. which is traditionally said to have been written by St. Eusebius himself, who died A.D. 371, and which may safely be placed in the fourth Century. In this MS. also we have another example of the early practice of writing the text in extremely narrow columns.

Among MSS. which are placed in the fifth Century two of the most famous are the codices of Livy at Vienna and Paris (Z. W. Ex. 18, 19; Pal. Soc. i. pl. 31,32, 183). The writing of the Viennese MS. is rather smaller than that of the other. It is also historically an interesting volume to Englishmen, as it is conjectured, from the occurrence of a note in it, to have belonged to the English monk, Suitbert, or Suiberht, one of the apostles to the Frisians, who became their bishop about the year 693. We select from it a specimen as a good example of uncial writing of the fifth Century.

Livy.—5th century.
—ri oppido posset ante ipsam Tempe in fau [ cibus situm Macaedoniae claustra | tutissima praebet et in Tessaliam | opportunum Macedonibus decur | sum cum et loco et praesidio valido in

For an example of uncial writing of the sixth Century we are able to turn to a MS. which can be approximately dated—the Fulda MS. of the Gospels and other books of the New Testament, which was revised by Victor, Bishop of Capua, in the years 546 and 547, and is itself probably of about the same period (Z. W. Ex. 34).

Fulda NT
Fulda New Testament.—about A.D.546.
Venerunt ad eum in hospi | tium plures . Quibus | exponebat testificans | regnum dei . Suadensque | eis de Iesu ex lege Mosi et | prophetis a mane usque

Even in this MS., as early as the middle of the sixth century, there is a certain falling off in ease and firmness of writing as compared with the earlier examples which have been quoted. But fine distinctions between the handwritings of different MSS. can only be satisfactorily studied by a comparison of the MSS. themselves, or of delicate photographic reproductions of them. The facsimiles here set before the reader, representing only brief passages and being simply in black and white, can not serve for more than the elementary purposes of this book.

Our next facsimile illustrates writing of a century and a half later, and is taken from the great MS. of the Bible known as the Codex Amiatinus (Z. W. Ex. 35 ; Pal. Soc. ii. pl. 65, 66), in the Laurentian Library at Florence. It is one. of three MSS. which were written by order of Ceolfrid, who became Abbot of Jarrow in Northumbria in 690; and it was taken by him on the journey to Italy, during which he died, in 716, for presentation to the Pope. The date of the MS. is therefore about the year 700. It should, however, be remarked that uncial writing of this type appears to have never gained favour in England ; and it is probable that the MS. was produced by Italian scribes brought over to this country.

codex amiatinus
Codex Amiatinus.—about A.D.700.
Et conloquebantur | ad invicem dicentes | quod est hoc verbum | quia in potestate et virtute | imperat spiritibus | inmundis et exeunt

the text is arranged stichometrically, and the characters are bold and in harmony with the large scale of the MS., which measures nearly twenty inches in height and contains more than a thousand leaves.