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


Britain was the least Latinized of the European regions of the empire. The Roman presence had a predominantly military and commercial character, and it did not effect a deep cultural penetration among the Celtic populations. After some invasions in the time of Julius Caesar and other unsuccessful attempts, Roman military occupation, which had begun in the 1st century AD and which ended in the following century, did not conquer the whole island and did not even touch neighboring Ireland. The Romans abandoned Britain at the beginning of the 5th century. Before their departure, however, two events occurred that had significant consequences: the introduction of Christianity on the island and the organization of a local clergy.

Around 432, Patrick, a Christian born in Britain to a Roman family, dedicated himself with some disciples to the task of evangelizing Ireland, where a vigorous monastic movement rapidly developed. At the end of the century, the monasteries were equipped with an efficient school system, capable of forming new generations of monks who in the following century began setting out from Ireland for a new evangelization of Britain, which had become the land of conquest of the Anglo and Saxon pagans after the departure of the Romans.

Pope Gregory the Great also directed his missionary efforts toward Britain, and in 597 sent a group of Benedictine monks led by Augustine of Canterbury to the region. Augustine brought many codices with him, probably bibles in Uncial and liturgical manuscripts, in order to introduce the Roman liturgy. A second evangelization promoted by Rome with more lasting effects occurred with Pope Vitalian, who in 668 sent the Greek, Theodore of Tarsus and the African, Hadrian of Niridanus, who also introduced a program of schools and literary studies in Britain.

Barb. lat. 570, f. 80r, Incipit del vangelo di Luca

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The origins of insular script

It was in this context that a bookhand called INSULAR was born in Ireland (a term coined by L. Traube). The previous Irish Celtic culture, which had been oral, had only recently developed a type of writing called Ogham, perhaps in the 3rd century, after some contact with the Roman culture. Ogham did not have letters of different shapes but made each with a different number of lines engraved to the right or left of a median line (on stones or on wood). It was a script used mostly for funerary monuments. Christianization, stimulated by the efforts of the missionaries who brought a written culture to these areas, was the cause of the birth of an Irish script in a region where, in practice, writing did not exist before, except in a primitive and scarcely used form. This probably occurred in the second half of the 5th century and soon after this script spread from Ireland to Britain (starting from Northumbria), where the low degree of Romanization had not led to a widespread diffusion of New Cursive script. The Irish script was born and thus developed in places that did not bear its own deeply rooted graphic tradition.

Starting from the 6th century, there was a burgeoning production of codices on both islands. Unlike what occurred at the beginning, and what would occur in other regions of the Empire, the spread of Latin writing began immediately in the book world, because Latin was not commonly spoken or written on the islands of the British archipelago, and a documentary production in Latin script did not exist.

Insular writing is divided into three types, each with its own characteristics; nevertheless, the common characteristics of the types of Insular writing induce the paleographers to speak of insular scripts, in the plural.