1. MAJUSCULE BOOKHANDS
The oldest Greek bookhands, found in parchment manuscripts from the 4th century CE onwards (and much earlier on papyrus), are of a type usually referred to as majuscule (as opposed to minuscule scripts, which became preponderant in the 9th century). Majuscule letters generally correspond to what beginning students of Greek are taught to think of as "upper-case letters." They are traced one at a time, without connecting strokes (whereas minuscule letters are strung together), and may be thought of as "bilinear" (as opposed to the "quadrilinear" minuscule), in that most letters fit between two imaginary, horizontal lines, i.e. the "headline" above and the "baseline" below; a few letters, usually ρ, υ, φ and ψ, have strokes which extend outside the bilinear scheme (the alphabet you see below is written with the font "0512 Dioskurides" which is available here and which reproduces the specific script found in the manuscript Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Med. Gr. 1; but it can also stand as a general exemplification of the Greek majuscule alphabet):
Deciphering majuscule scripts is usually not very difficult; if you know Greek, you will probably be able to identify most or all of the letters in this collage of early and relatively early majuscule bookhands.
It is obvious, even at first glance, that a variety of styles of script are represented here, even though the shape of each individual letter is fundamentally the same in each of the samples. Bear in mind that this collage represents a very small sample of the extant manuscripts in Greek majuscule, which are themselves a tiny (and not necessarily representative) sample of the manuscripts which were produced in majuscule script. Bear in mind also that none of the manuscripts represented here can be dated or localized by any objective criterion, with one exception: sample 5 can be dated precisely to the year 800 CE, as we shall see. The main task of the paleographer — besides the very basic one of deciphering the scripts — is to classify the endless variety of hands which we can observe in the extant manuscripts. (Usually the paleographer will also want to propose an interpretation of the classification, for example in chronological or geographical terms; and such interpretation is of course greatly facilitated if one or the other of the classified manuscripts can be dated or localized on external grounds, e.g. by a subscription with an explicitly mentioned date and/or place.) If one wanted to classify the scripts displayed here (which are, to repeat, a very small sample of the extant ones, and indeed of what can be observed in each of the manuscripts represented), one might observe, for example, that:
- Samples 1, 3, 4, 7, 8 and 9 have an upright axis, while samples 2 and 6 have a slanted one (sample 5 seems unsure whether its axis is to be upright or slanted);
- The letters epsilon, omicron and sigma are narrow ovals in samples 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6, while they are circular (or nearly so) in samples 5, 7, 8 and 9;
- The central juncture of the two oblique strokes of mu varies between curved (samples 1, 6 and 7) and pointed (sample 9), while the other samples fall somewhere in between;
- The tail of ypsilon descends below the line in samples 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 and 9, while it does not descend below the line in samples 1, 5 and 7;
- Alpha appears written in a single stroke in samples 1 and 7; in two strokes in samples 2, 3, 4 and 5; and in three strokes in samples 6, 8 and 9;
- Delta has lower serifs (as Д in modern Cyrillic script) in samples 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, but not in samples 1, 7, 8 and 9.
These are precisely the sort of observations that the discipline of paleography is based upon; but you will have noticed that no two of the criteria mentioned here produce the same groupings. Further criteria could be added based on these samples; and many, many more could be added if more or larger samples were used; but the result would be the same — indeed the variety of scripts and of possible groupings would only become more bewildering as more and larger samples were added, not to mention that counter-examples for some criteria would be found within a single manuscript. This is not surprising, since scribes had agency — each hand we can observe belonged (as does your handwriting and mine) to a unique person who, to be sure, learned to write in a specific time and place; but who also had unique, personal characteristics; who could choose to imitate (with or without personal modifications) this or that feature of a model; and who was exposed to a wide variety of potential models from different places and times in the course of the work of transcribing new copies. The upshot is that any classification of scripts is bound to be somewhat arbitrary; one could also say that paleography is more an art than a science. Still, while not mathematically rigorous, attempts to classify scripts have in fact produced results which are useful and, in many cases, verifiable.
A defining moment in the history of Greek paleography was the publication in 1967 of Guglielmo Cavallo’s book Ricerche sulla maiuscola biblica. Though it was formally merely a study of one specific "canon" of Greek majuscule script, (the so-called "Biblical majuscule"), it also defined other majuscule "canons" (by way of distinguishing them from the "Biblical" one); most importantly, it was a methodological manifesto, explicitly invoking a theory about how scripts develop and change (namely, the one set forth in G. Cencetti’s book Lineamenti di storia della scrittura latina, esp. pp. 51-56). Cencetti’s theory posits a "normal" script (scrittura usuale) in everyday use at any given time and place and subject to continuous evolution (due to both cultural and technical factors), which constitutes the ever-changing background or "climate" within which contemporary book scripts and chancery scripts establish themselves as "canons." (He further distinguished between "styles" [which may be thought of as optional but systematic modifications of a "canon"] and "types" [which, while similar to "canons," cannot be observed to have reached the same level of standardization].) According to this theory, "canonized" scripts (scritture canonizzate) — of which the Greek "Biblical majuscule" is one —, bearing well-defined characteristics, far outlive the momentary state of the constantly evolving "normal" script which gives birth to them, and as a result they tend to evolve according to a predictable pattern, involving an initial period of formation, followed by what one might call a period of maturity (though Cavallo speaks rather of "perfection"), and then by a period of decadence which sets in when the deviation between the ossified canonized script and the constantly evolving "normal" script has grown to a point where scribes are no longer able to produce the canonized script naturally and proficiently.
Applying such a theory to Greek majuscule scripts, as Cavallo did, produced results which were, and remain, remarkable in a number of ways. On the one hand, the deductive reasoning on display throughout Cavallo’s account of Biblical majuscule means that almost every one of his assertions — from his exemplifications of the letter-shapes themselves (pp. 7-10), which are not reproduced from any particular manuscript source but apparently represent Cavallo’s own idealized abstractions from his (admittedly considerable) experience with many manuscript sources, to the characterization of this or that concrete instance of the script as "formative," "perfect" or "decadent" — is open to the charge of begging the question. On the other hand, this method allowed Cavallo take a large group of manuscripts which offer hardly any clues as to their original provenance or (even relative) date, and to assign to each one a fairly precise place on a developmental arc (one might also say, on a continuum) which he interpreted in chronological terms, running from formation to maturity to decadence. Since very few of his manuscripts are actually objectively datable, the only "proof" of the validity of his interpretation is the observation that the method "works" in the sense that it yields a plausible classification of otherwise unclassifiable hands (it is fair to add that the few objectively datable manuscripts included do indeed fall in the "right" places, namely P. Ryl. 16, before 255-6 ["perfection", pp. 45-47]; Vindob. Med. Gr. 1, about 512 CE ["decadence", pp. 94-97]; Vat. gr. 1666, 800 CE ["decadence", p. 107]; it is notable that Cavallo’s entire reconstruction of the "formation" of the canon is not, and cannot be, corroborated by any objective evidence, due to the lack of dated exemplars). In the absence of other workable proposals, this has become the standard chronological framework for classifying exemplars of the script known as "Biblical majuscule." Paleographers have also generally followed Cavallo in dividing older Greek majuscule scripts into three main groups, namely Biblical, Alexandrian and Ogival (respectively, in the collage above, samples 5, 8, 9; 1, 7; 2, 3, 4, 6), with the last group further subdivided into Upright Ogival (samples 3, 4) and Slanted Ogival (samples 2, 6).
The two oldest "canons" of Greek majuscule are the Biblical and the Alexandrian, which may be seen in the two manuscripts below (the Biblical passage shown in the initial view of both manuscripts is from Isaiah chapter 61).
(left) Vat. gr. 1209 (initial view: p. 1058); (right) Vat. gr. 2125 (initial view: p. 325).