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


As we have already seen, the dominant script of the "golden age" of Byzantium, the Perlschrift, continued in use as a calligraphic bookhand well into the twelfth century. It was in fact never "replaced" by a successor script; instead, it underwent an evolution (sometimes referred to in terms of "decadence" or "dissolution") involving the incorporation of cursive elements and leading eventually to the rather baroque styles which will be found in many fourteenth-century bookhands. The natural view that this was a linear development, with greater "cursivity" being a sure sign of late date, was challenged in an important paper published by Nigel Wilson in the proceedings the 1974 Paris conference (pp. 221-239), who showed that the cursive elements found in bookhands as early as the eleventh and twelfth centuries are often found in copies made by scholars for private use rather than for the book trade, and that they moreover corresponded closely to developments in dated documentary and chancery scripts of the same period, suggesting on the one hand that the origins of this phenomenon are to be sought in a blurring of the distinction between professional calligraphers and bureaucratic scribes (due perhaps, as suggested by G. Cavallo [in his contribution to the 1998 Cremona conference proceedings, pp. 219-238:236], to what appears to have been a massive increase in book production at this time, resulting in a hypothetical shortage of professional scribes); and on the other that a number of manuscripts which had previously been dated to the thirteenth or even fourteenth centuries were in fact examples of "scholarly hands" from the twelfth or even eleventh centuries (as indeed explicitly indicated in a number of subscriptions whose veracity which had previously been doubted due to the apparent lateness of the scripts in the relevant manuscripts).

The upshot is that, in the second half of the eleventh century and throughout the twelfth, we begin to see bookhands incorporating to a greater or lesser degree a rather bewildering variety of cursive elements and of stylistic quirks which originated in documentary and chancery scripts. The main features which are typically found in these hands, apart from a general ("cursive") tendency to join letters in ways which are not necessarily predictable, were listed already by Wilson (p. 222), namely:

  • enlargement of certain letters (Wilson mentioned especially gamma, kappa and tau, but each scribe had his own preferences);
  • enlargement of the abbreviations for alpha-iota, omikron-nu and omega-nu (and often also of the circumflex, which is of the same shape as the last of these);
  • an open form of the ligatures sigma-tau and epsilon-tau;
  • long grave accents (and also abbreviations for omikron-nu), which, in the general appearance of the page, form a pattern together with long, usually straight diagonal strokes on majuscule alpha;
  • the masculine dative article τῶ written as a tall tau growing out of a wide omega;
  • large, round letters (esp. epsilon, omikron and later omega) which enclose one or two following letters (especially from the very end of the eleventh century onwards).

Not all characteristics are represented in all exemplars, and they may appear with more or less prominence. Building on Wilson's observations, Lidia Perria and Paul Canart attempted a typological classification of these hands in a paper published in the proceedings of 1983 Paleography conference in Berlin-Wolfenbüttel (vol. 1, pp. 67-118 & vol. 2, pp. 51-68; repr. in Canart, Études…, pp. 933-1000). There is a wide variety in these scripts, with many sub-categories comprising only a few extant witnesses, so it is not possible to study them all here. A few representative samples are shown below:

  • Vat. gr. 65, containing Isocrates, is an example of a "scholarly hand", copied by a notary (βασιλικὸς νοτάριος) named Theodore (RGK 3,219) in 1063 CE, probably for personal use;
  • Vat. gr. 504, containing various theological and exegetical works, is an example of a cursive hand which is nonetheless not entirely devoid of calligraphic pretension, copied in Constantinople by one Ἰωάννης Χάλδης (RGK 3,313) in 1105 CE;
  • Vat. gr. 586, containing works of John Chrysostom, is in a very elegant, stylized script which nonetheless displays many cursive elements like the ones in the list above; the entire volume (not just ff. 425-428, as indicated in RGK) was written in 1124 CE by a priest named Niketas (RGK 3,490);
  • Vat. gr. 746, containting the Octateuch (i.e. the first eight books of the Bible), is in a rather peculiar script which is found in a group of illuminated Octateuchs which are dated to the the twelfth century, though this exemplar is not explicitly dated; this script displays a tendency to enlarge circular letters (esp. omikron and sigma) in a way which will become more common in the so-called Fettaugenmode of the thirteenth century.
Dissoluzione Vat gr 65 f 171r.jpg
Detail from Vat. gr. 65, f. 171r
Dissoluzione Vat gr 504 f 117r.jpg
Detail from Vat. gr. 504, f. 117r
Dissoluzione Vat gr 586 f 37r.jpg
Detail from Vat. gr. 586, f. 37r
Dissoluzione Vat gr 746 f 52v.jpg
Detail from Vat. gr. 746, f. 52v

For practice reading and transcribing these scripts, please see Vat. gr. 65, Vat. gr. 504, and Vat. gr. 586.