It would be impossible to put a complete write-up on Latin palaeography on E2; firstly, because it's a vast subject with much work left to be done, and secondly, because it's a visual art, relying on manuscripts and fonts impossible to mimic in a text node. But, I'll give a quick 5-minute tour, by no means complete, for anyone who might be interested.

Palaeography, ("the study of old writing") really began in the 15th century, as a means of determining the authenticity of a manuscript for legal claims. It was noted that scripts and styles of writing developed and could even, in many instances, be localised, and so offered a rather more scientific way of dating a text. Most of these are very beautiful; books meant for royal archives are often decorated with gold and murex. To give you some perspective, a single book could demand the lives of over 500 sheep. Reading was expensive.

The study is first bound to the physical object. In Egypt, books were written on papyrus with pens made of reed, cut into a cross section, with ink made of gum, water, and ash (usually). Roman and Greek books were also scrolls, often of papyrus, less often of vellum; however, most writing, of less permanent worth, was done on wax tablets, with a stylus used to impress the characters. The late classical period saw the rise of true books, codices; sheets of papyrus, paper, or vellum were folded, then sewn to a stiff binding to form quires or folios. Size always varied according to need, as did format.

Now, a few terms:

  • autograph: a manuscript hand-written by the author
  • boustrophedic: writing "as the ox plows", i.e., in alternating directions, right to left to right to left, etc., a feature of earlier Greek and Roman texts.
  • ligature: a binding of two or more letters to form a single character. e.g., the ampersand, &, is a ligature of e and t for the latin word "et", "and".
  • palimpsest: a book in which the first writing has been erased and covered with a second text. This often happens when a text is forgotten or considered unimportant over time. e.g., a manuscript of Tacitus' Germania was erased and covered in several letters of St. Augustine.
Let's begin at the beginning. Early Latin script was a derivative or an alphabet used by the Western Greeks, heavily modified for the Latin and Etruscan languages. The earliest form is the capitalis, written in all block, capital letters of relatively equal height, with ligatures for or, unt, and ur. This soon developed into the epigraphic capitalis, used on buildings and inscriptions, where all the letters take up an equal amount of space. It looks surprisingly like our modern alphabet.

Simultaneously, there is a latin book hand called Older Roman cursive, divided into majuscule and minuscule scripts. The former is the earlier, and characterised by a B written with a bow on the left with a rounded neck, a D written with a leftward or upward shaft above, a long, narrow, oval Q, and R with long shaft and curving top stroke. A, R, B, and D are confusingly similar, as are C, P, and T. For a time, it was used as the royal script of the imperial court in Rome. The minuscule is named because its forms come close to our lower case letters. The b character has the bow on the right, and q is written with an upper-open-ended circle with a descending shaft on the right.

These are followed somewhat chronologically by the uncial, a book hand of the later Roman period. The letters are standardised; R with the upper bow and right-slanting descender, G as a right-open-ended bow with a small descender on the bottom right, A with a large descender from top left to bottom right, with a smaller ascender from bottom left to meet the descender halfway, with another ascender starting at the same point, but meeting the descender a little below the first. A calligraphization from the (late) cursive, further developed in the half uncial, similar to the uncial, but with more cursive influence, e.g. an S written as a rectilinear shaft with a short ascender from the tip.

Confused? Well you should be; visuals help. But these are the basic scripts which bled across the rest of Europe. A few more, more briefly described:

  • Beneventan: a northern Italian script, heavily calligraphized, with very angular letters.
  • Mozarabic: a Spanish script, starting around the 8th century, heavily influenced by Arabic characters. Angular, but flowing. A nightmare to read.
  • Irish and Anglo-Saxon. Heavily influenced by the half-uncial forms, usually very even-handed.
  • Luxeuil: A French script of the 7th century and later, very cursive and flowing, with lots of ligatures. Very beautiful, a derivative of:
  • Caroline Minuscule: really a misnomer, but derived further from the half-uncial; the book script used during the Carolingian Renaissence, and thus the hand in which many of our earliest and most important texts are written
I know this is probably very confusing, and probably only liminally useful. I've left out a few scripts (such as the German bastarda), and only half-described most others. But it's a decent overview, I think. All of these are inter-related, and it's often hard to tell where one script ends and another begins. Also, this is all from memory; if you find errors, let me know, and I'll fix them. I'll also try to add some sort of chronology later.

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