Latin Paleography From Antiquity to the Renaissance [by A. M. Piazzoni]


1.1 The language of paleography

Paleography has its own technical vocabulary (like any academic discipline). It uses several specific terms that have a particular meaning to indicate a) the physical structure of the signs and b) the general categories of types of writing. The following are the most common terms.

  • Terms related to the physical structure of the signs

Form (or design): exterior aspect or appearance of the individual letters and single signs.

Dimension: letter size (large-, medium-, small-format); this also includes the relationship between height and width of the letter (round, square, rectangular form).

Flow: degree of rapidity with which letters are written; it is either set (or formal/calligraphic) when the writing is not written in haste; it has no (or has few) ligatures, it has no pronounced inclination; it is cursive when it has many ligatures and is inclined (generally to the right).

Writing angle: position of the writing utensil (stylus, calamus, pen) with respect to the material on which it is written (more precisely with respect to the direction of the baseline).

Ductus: order of sequence and direction in which the individual strokes constituting the letter are executed.

Contrast: thick or thin nature of the strokes that make up the letters (heavy, or severe, with strong contrasts between thick and thin strokes, or light)

Ligatures: spontaneous links in writing that join two or more letters together; these are characteristic of cursive scriptures.

Consolidated ligatures: when two (or even more) letters have shared traits.

  • Terms relating to general categories of types of writing

Majuscule/Capital: a script whose letters are (more or less) the same height, and confined between two parallel lines (writings inserted in a bilinear system).


Miniscule: a script which, by the incorporation of letters of different heights with ascenders and descenders, occupies the space of four parallel lines (quattrolinear system).

Writing by the norm: a script that represents the ideal model that all writers follow for a type of writing, and that they receive from school or other influences.

‘Everyday’ writing: a script commonly used for everyday use (tends to simplify the signs and to quicken execution).

There is also an elementary script that signifies the typical writing of those who have completed only the first grades of school.

1.2 Written signs that are not letters: punctuation, numerals, special characters, decorations

In addition to the letters that make up words, other signs are also found in the manuscripts, such as:

  • punctuation: signs that serve to divide the sentence and to add a particular tone; these are the predecessors of the period, comma, semicolon, colon, exclamation point, question mark, etc .;
  • numbers: Roman numerals, and from about the 12th century, also Arabic numerals;
  • special characters: for example, paragraph marks, note references or corrections placed in the margin;
  • decorations: everything that concerns the aesthetic apparatus of the manuscript (styles, iconographic motifs, themes, subjects, artistic techniques, etc.). Cfr.

These signs and their meanings are indicated in the annotations of the pages that have been transcribed.

1.3 History of the discipline of paleography

Almost all the manuals of paleography have introductions to the history of the discipline; may all those who want to expand upon the subject turn to these resources. Here we want only to remember that the academic and methodological structure of this discipline was essentially defined in the 17th century by the Benedictine monk of the Congregation of Saint Maur (Maurini) Jean Mabillon, in the fifth book of the De re diplomatica (Paris 1681). As part of the ongoing dispute between the Jesuit Bollandists and the Benedictine Maurini about the authenticity of documents kept in St. Denis, Mabillon laid the foundations for classifying the scripts according to their own forms. A quarter of a century later, his brother Bernard de Montfaucon gave the name to that new discipline, in his book Palaeographia Graeca (Paris 1708). Since then, in the past three centuries, the discipline has advanced and become specialized. There are countless people who have used the manuscripts for their research, thousands of titles collected in the bibliographies concerning the studies of paleography or individual manuscripts, many hundreds of paleographers who have proposed new hypotheses or interpretations, more or less convincing, and who have contributed to delineating the history of the development of Latin writing. Today paleography continues to promise developments by continually posing new questions and searching for answers. An exhaustive and reasonable list cannot be made here. In special cases, names and titles are mentioned in the context of this pathway.

1.4 Use of paleographic plates

The practice, or rather the reading of the manuscript pages, rather than the reliance on theory alone (albeit the necessity of the latter) proved absolutely decisive in order to obtain results in the study of paleography. As stated by the one who “invented” paleography, Jean Mabillon, «rectius docent specimina quam verba» («examples teach more correctly than words», as E. A. Lowe recalls CLA VI, p. V). For this reason the most important part of each paleography course is the “practicum”, where there are examples to be read, and ever since the first paleographical publications, we have taken recourse to the reproduction of important images taken from the pages of manuscripts, as faithfully as they can be reproduced. From the plates designed by scholars and engraved on copper plates in 17th century, we have progressed to printed photographic reproductions and today, thanks to digital technology, there is a large and ever increasing quantity of images of manuscripts on the web. Their availability online, combined with tools such as IIIF language, Mirador viewer, and the Spotlight platform, are extremely useful and constitute a genuine step forward in the realm of learning (and also teaching) paleography. And this is what we intend to do in this pathway.

1.5 Scope of this pathway

This pathway does not claim to provide a complete guide to Latin paleography; rather, it provides some specific parameters concerning the typology of the manuscripts and the scripts, and their diffusion in space and time.


Special attention is given to the scripts that are defined as book-hands, namely, those used for books; but sometimes it is necessary to mention the scripts used for other purposes, for example documentary scripts (that used to make documents) or the epigraphic ones (that used to make epigraphs). One can not forget that writing is a unitary phenomenon even in its different manifestations, something of which all paleographers are convinced. In some special cases it is also useful to point out relations with scripts and cultures other than Latin, such as Greek, and occasionally with the Semitic cultures (Jewish, Syriac, Arabic, etc.) and Eastern Christian (Coptic, Armenian, Georgian) , etc.


The physical space that concerns us here is the one where Latin culture has spread, which, started from Rome and essentially succeeded in occupying the Mediterranean and Europe, from today’s Spain to the Middle East, from the northern shores of Africa up to the British Isles. In the Middle Ages, with the division of the Roman empire, the Byzantine civilization developed in the eastern part of Europe and the Mediterranean, whose language was mainly Greek.


The history of Latin writing is traditionally divided into four periods. As with all periodization and attempts to divide time, it is always a questionable choice, but it allows us to examine the development of Latin writing in an orderly and rational manner.

I. Period of the unity of Roman writing (from its beginnings in the 7th century BC to the 6th/7th centuries AD). The same scripts are used in all the countries of Latin culture. The period ends with the dissolution of Roman cultural unity and with the separation of the barbarian kingdoms from the Roman Empire.

II. Period of national writings or “graphic differentiation“ (from the fifth to the 9th century). Different writings are formed in the various regions corresponding to the various divisions of the ancient Roman empire of the West.

III. Period of return to a Latin writer unit (from the 9th century to the 14th century). The unity of writing in the West is rebuilt with the adoption of one new Latin script: Carolingian (France, Germany, northern Italy: 9th century, Spain: late 11th, England and islands: 12th century, southern Italy: 12th/13th centuries), which then developed into Gothic writing.

IV. Humanistic/modern period (from the 15th century). The forms of Carolingian are newly assumed by Italian humanists (15th century) and then in Europe (16th/17th centuries), except in Germany, where the Gothic survives almost until today.