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

Alexandrian Majuscule

The second old canon of majuscule bookhand is now usually referred to as "Alexandrian," though in older scholarship it is often referred to as "Coptic" (this designation is now avoided because the received Coptic script, which indeed resembles this type of majuscule, was in fact derived from it, not vice versa). The name with which it is usually referred to today has an unusually ancient pedigree, far antedating the discipline of paleography itself, being derived from an anecdote regarding the ninth-century patriarch of Constantinople Photios I, who, in the course of a political intrigue, is said to have forged a document and written it "in Alexandrian letters" (γράμμασιν Ἀλεξανδρίνοις) in order to increase its apparent age; G. Cavallo ("Γράμματα Ἀλεξανδρῖνα", Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik 24 [1975], pp. 23-54, repr. in Il calamo e il papiro, pp. 175-202) demonstrated that the type of script referred to in the story about Photios was almost certainly this one. This script is also objectively associated with Egypt and especially with Alexandria in that several preserved exemplars of the "Festal Letters" which were published annually by the Patriarch of Alexandria from the third c. onwards to announce the date of Easter are written in this script (more on these below).

The most common type of Alexandrian majuscule displays the following characteristics, which are illustrated by the words θαυμάσια καὶ (taken from Vat. gr. 2125, p. 91 [Joel 3:26]):

  • a vertical axis;
  • opposition between narrow letters (alpha, beta, epsilon, theta, iota, omikron, sigma, rho; in other words, the letters which are circular in the Biblical majustule [epsilon, theta, omikron, sigma], plus alpha, beta, iota and rho) and wide letters (all the rest): the former are shaped so that they fit into a narrow rectangle, while the latter are shaped so that they fit into a square or even into a wide rectangle;
  • a tendency to replace angles with curves or loops, and to add small curls or blobs at the extremities of strokes;
  • a tendency to prolong descending strokes along the base line so that they touch or nearly touch the following letter (such prolonged strokes are known as "pseudo-ligatures") ;
  • peculiar shapes for the letters alpha (written in a single, complex stroke, or so as to appear thus written), mu (with a curve replacing the two oblique central strokes) and ypsilon (with a loop replacing the descender, so that the letter respects the bilinear scheme rather than descending below the base line as in the Biblical majuscule).

Stroke contrast is not a consistent feature of this script (though it is sometimes present), the chiaroscuro effect being achieved rather with loops and curls.

What we have described so far is in fact only one of two "types" of Alexandrian majuscule, which is sometimes called the "plurimodular" type, because the module of the letters varies between wide and narrow. The other type, known as "unimodular", has a constant, squarish module comparable to that of the Biblical majuscule; you may see it in sample 7 in the collage at the top of the page on Majuscule Bookhands (from cod. Borg. copt. 109, which you may see more of here). We will not study this type of script further here, because you are very unlikely to come across it in a parchment or paper manuscript written in Greek.

The earliest examples of Alexandrine majuscule are papyri which are dated to the second century CE; it does not seem to have been used as a normal bookhand after the seventh century, though its use continued long afterwards as an Auszeichnungsschrift (i.e. a distinctive script used for titles and the like; for a tenth-century example, see the titles in Vat. gr. 1613). The only real reference points for dating the plurimodular Alexandrian majuscule as a bookhand are two of the Festal Letters we have already mentioned, namely P. Grenf. 2,112, which, based on the date it gives for Easter, must be from either 577 or 672 CE; and P. Berlin 10677, which must be from either 713 or 719 CE. Cavallo carefully analyzed the differences between the scripts of these two papyri (Γραμματα …, pp. 45-6 = Il calamo …, pp. 194-5), interpreting them in terms of a chronological development of the script over a period of a little over a century (and arguing, as indeed this interpretation required him to, that the Grenfell papyrus should be dated to 577 rather than 672 — the later date would have made it very nearly contemporary with the Berlin papyrus). Even supposing that Cavallo's dating of the Grenfell Papyrus is correct, such an interpretation is, of course, rather hazardous when only two samples are available (it is obvious that even two contemporaneous scribes may have somewhat different scripts); at any rate, the upshot, which is not unlikely to be correct, is that the contrast between wide and narrow letters tended to increase over time, as did the presence of flourishes like blobs and curls at the extremities of the strokes; in sum, the more "baroque" the script is, the later it is likely to be.

You may familiarize yourself with this script by studying and transcribing one of the most important preserved manuscripts written in Alexandrian majuscule, the so-called Codex Marchalianus of the Old Testament prophets (Vat. gr. 2125), from which you also may see a sample below. In this manuscript, you will note a further "baroque" characteristic, besides those noted above, namely the ornamental enlargement (sometimes to enormous proportions) of the letter phi. This manuscript is generally dated to around the year 700, primarily on the basis of the resemblance between its script and that of the datable manuscript P. Berlin 10677. (Note that the accents and breathings in this manuscript do not seem to have been written by the original scribe; it is impossible to say when they were added).

Vat. gr. 2125 (initial view: p. 388, Jeremiah 14:14-18)

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