Greek Paleography From Antiquity to the Renaissance [by T. Janz]


The considerable diversity in Greek bookhands during the ninth and early tenth century was followed by a long period, covering the second half of the tenth and most of the eleventh century, in which there was one dominant bookhand, the so-called Perlschrift; other styles continued to exist alongside this one, most notably, in the tenth century, the so-called bouletée script, which however was mostly confined to sumptuous luxury books. Both of these scripts were identified and described by the viennese byzantinist Herbert Hunger, who in 1954 gave the Perlschrift its German name which is still used internationally today ("Die Perlschrift, eine Stilrichtung der griechischen Buchschrift des 11. Jahrhunderts", in id., Studien zur griechischen Paläographie, pp. 22-32); however, his "discovery" of the "bouletée" script, which he presented as part of his paper at the Paris paleography conference in 1974 (pp. 201-220 of the proceedings, in particular pp. 203-4) and which he proposed to call Kirchenlehrerstil, was overshadowed by a very detailed study of that same script presented at the same conference by the French paleographer Jean Irigoin (pp. 191-199 of the proceedings; rather amusingly, each scholar had been unaware of the other's work until the conference), who proposed to call it minuscule bouletée.

A. "Bouletée" Minuscule

This last script recalls certain aspects of the "Philosophical Collection Type" we saw in the preceding page, namely the vertical (or slightly left-leaning) axis, the round letters, and the blobs or "boules" which give the bouletée its name. Letter-bodies tend to be circular or to fit into a square; ascenders and descenders are reduced to a minimum (usually with some exceptions, typically the descenders of lambda and rho), so that, as Irigoin noted, this script seems to revert from the quadrilinear scheme of the minuscule to something more like a "bilinear scheme with a few exceptions". The delta is remarkable in that the curve at the top of the letter is typically upright rather than tilted to the left as it is in other minuscule scripts. An entire monograph was dedicated to this type of script in 1992 by Maria Luisa Agati, who identified about 200 manuscripts written in bouletée.

This is a very elegant script, used primarily in large books of very fine parchment containing Biblical texts or works by the Church Fathers (hence the name which Hunger had proposed for it). However, secular authors are also represented among the bouletée manuscripts, e.g. Herodotus in Laur. 70.3 and Thucydides in Laur. 69.2. Many manuscripts in bouletée also have outrageously large margins (which are either empty or filled with scholia or catenae) and/or outrageously wide interlinear spaces, showing, as Hunger noted, that they really were luxury products whose owners had no need to worry about the cost of fine parchment. The impression one has when opening such a book is one of extremely refined elegance; but this impression is difficult to convey in a photograph for reasons similar to those which make the grandeur of a broad landscape difficult to convey in a photograph: it is impossible to take in both the broad vista and the beauty of the details. Below, you may see a close-up of one line taken from Urb. gr. 15, f. 106r; in the viewer, you may browse the same manuscript and zoom in and out, in order to gain an impression of the overall effect. Another very opulent manuscript in bouletée which you may enjoy browsing is Par. gr. 139, a Psalter where the Biblical text and the marginal catenae are both in bouletée.

Bouletée from Urb gr 15 f 106r.png
Bouletée script (detail from Urb. gr. 15, f. 106r)

Urb. gr. 15; initial view: f. 106r

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Note that the marginal scholia, which seem to be the work of the main scribe, are not in bouletée but in a sort of hybrid composed primarily of shapes recalling Alexandrine majuscule, with an admixture of minuscule letters. This type of script is not unusual in ninth-century marginal scholia or catenae, but has not yet been studied with the attention it perhaps deserves. On the other hand, titles in this manuscript, as on f. 103v (which you may browse back to in the viewer above), are in proper Alexandrine majuscule, with gilded dots reinforcing the blobs at the ends of the strokes.

The earliest dated manuscript in bouletée minuscule is Athens, National Library of Greece, MS. 2641, which was subscribed on f. 331r by the a scribe named Joseph in the year 913/4. This manuscript has not been digitized, but N. Kavrus-Hoffmann has demonstrated (in RSBN 42 [2005], pp. 93-104) that the eleven leaves which today are kept at the Free Library of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, U.S.A.) with the shelfmark Lewis E 251 must originally have belonged to this same manuscript; these fragments may be seen here. The latest dated manuscript which can be thought of as belonging to this style is Laur. Conv. Soppr. 191, subscribed by one Theophylact in 984 CE, which is also not digitized but of which you may see black & white images in Lake 10,367 or Lefort-Cochez 52.

For practice reading and transcribing bouletée minuscule, please see Urb. gr. 15.

B. Perlschrift

The dominant script of this period, which coincides with the "Golden Age" of Byzantium associated with the culmination of the Macedonian dynasty (867-1057 CE) and especially the reign of Basil II (976-1025 CE), is the Perlschrift or "Pearl Script", whose name was inspired by the effect of "pearls on a string" which is produced by its characteristic preference for circular shapes, coupled with its concern for harmonious proportions and spacing. Hunger described the first aspect in terms of the circular omikron being (conceptually at least) the fundamental shape out of which other letters are built wherever possible, so that alpha is an omikron with a vertical stroke added on the right; sigma is an omikron with a headline stroke added; epsilon is the same with an ascender added above; omega is a double omikron, pi is the same with a horizontal stroke added above; upsilon is the lower half of a (larger) omikron, etc. Angular elements tend to be avoided, so that minuscule eta has a wavy shape, and the bottom of minuscule gamma is often rounded rather than pointed. Rho is often joined to the following letter from the bottom (as in the "Ephraim Type" we saw earlier), forming (if you will) yet another "half-omikron" at the juncture between the bottom of the descender and the connecting stroke. The axis is vertical or slightly right-leaning; ascenders and descenders tend to be rather short, so that, here as in the bouletée script, there is a tendency towards a bilinear scheme. Hunger also attached some importance to the page layout of manuscripts written in this script, noting that the proportion between the height of the letter-bodies and the height of the interlinear space is generally between 1:3.5 and 1:4, though it is obviously questionable whether such observations can be considered characteristics of the script itself. The main point is that there is a clear effort to create a harmonious overall effect. This script is generally quite formal, with relatively few cursive elements; however, cursive letter-shapes and letter-combinations are not eschewed entirely, so long as they are "rounded"; see for example the sequence theta-epsilon-zeta in the word καθεζομένων in the sample below.

Perlschrift from Vat gr 1613 p 124.png
Detail from Vat. gr. 1613, p. 124

Hunger considered the Perlschrift to be primarily a script of the eleventh century; but subsequent scholarship has extended its dating in both directions. If we do not count the "Ephraim Type" (which we studied in the preceding page) as belonging to this type of script, the earliest samples of Perlschrift seem to belong to the middle of the tenth century (often cited as an early example is Ath. Dionys. 70, which is dated to 955 CE [Lake 3,87]). The finest examples are generally considered those which are dated or datable to the end of the tenth century, such as Urb. gr. 20 (written by a scribe named Gregory [RGK 3,148] in 992 CE; Lake 7,267) or Vat. gr. 1613 (probably several years later than 979 CE, since it includes on p. 238 a likeness [though no life] of St. Luke the Stylite, who died in that year, see S. Der Nersessian in Byzantion 15 [1940-41], pp. 104-125). Dated examples of Perlschrift may be found well into the twelfth century, e.g. Vat. gr. 544, which was written by a monk named Ἀντώνιος (RGK 3,43) in 1143 CE.

It has been noted that the notion of "Perlschrift" has sometimes come to be abused as a sort of all-purpose descriptor for any vaguely rounded script which might be dated to the middle Byzantine period (see Perria's manual, p. 94; in greater detail, M. D'Agostino & P. Degni, "La Perlschrift dopo Hunger", Scripta 7 [2014], pp. 77-93:82-3). To some extent this is a natural consequence of the dominance of this type of script during the Macedonian Renaissance, when Constantinople was the largest and richest city in Europe. Naturally, the dominant style of that period is not only present in a fairly large number of contemporary manuscripts, but was also imitated by scribes for several centuries afterwards — and in fact such "archaizing" scripts, which can appear much older than they are, can be difficult to date: P. Canart and L. Perria, in their joint contribution to the Greek Paleography conference held in Berlin and Wolfenbüttel in 1988, (proceedings, v. 1, pp. 67-118:87, reprinted in P. Canart, Études de paléographie et de codicologie, v. 2, pp. 933-1000:953) cite the example of Lond. Add. 5107, a Gospel manuscript dated to 1159 CE which could easily be placed in the tenth century, were it not explicitly dated, though the late date is also indicated by a certain awkwardness in the purposely archaising script. In a sense, the Perlschrift is the Greek minuscule par excellence. Canart & Perria, in their already mentioned conference paper, pp. 84-86, (in the reprint, v. 2, pp. 950-952), attempted to differentiate several sub-styles within the Perlschrift, distinguishing between a "classic" Perlschrift, attested until about 1090 CE, including the examples shown above; a roughly contemporary "perlée hiératique", seen e.g. in Lond. Add. 36,751 (copied in 1008 CE by Theophanes [RGK 1,136; 2,180; 3,230]; Lake 2,67), used primarily in liturgical books; and a twelfth-century "small round vertical" Perlschrift, seen e.g. in Ath. Laur. A 58 (1118 CE; Lake 3,194). We may expect a finer differentiation in the monograph about the Perlschrift which D'Agostino & Degni promise in their above-mentioned article.

For practice reading Perlschrift, please see Vat. gr. 1613.