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

11.1 Bookhands of the frankish regions

In the Frankish regions, there were several centers of book production, above all religious ones, linked to monasteries or to the cathedral schools, where various writing tendencies could be witnessed. On the one hand, the writings of a more ancient convention were used, such as Uncial and semi-Uncial, for example in Lyon. On the other, there was a pursuit to make Merovingian a more set and calligraphic script, apt for book use, or to make semi-Uncial more cursive. This process effected important typifications of the Frankish realm in the scriptoria of cathedrals such as Laon or abbeys of Irish foundation, such as Luxeuil and Corbie, as well as centers in the Frankish area but outside the kingdom, for example in St. Gallen in Switzerland (also of Irish foundation). Often, these scriptoria did not limit themselves to producing books for their own internal use, since instead they had the function of real writing centers that also produced books for the benefit of external parties, and therefore exported manuscripts to other monasteries and centers of study.

There is a tendency to define all these Frankish writings that are in minuscule bookhand by the label, “Merovingian”. Thus, it is a term to be understood very broadly, in order to include the various local scripts used in the region of Gaul between the end of the Roman era and the beginning of the Carolingian one.

11.1.1 “Type a” merovingian script (formerly called “Luxeuil”)

The monastery of Luxeuil, founded by the Irish monk Colomban around 590 in the southern Vosges, had a famous school in the 7th century and was the most important scriptorium in the Frankish region. Up until the mid-20th century, it was believed that there had originated an elegant typification of Merovingian bookhand, which excluded the more evident features of the script. A school of Luxeuil was thought to have existed, and therefore a scriptura Lexoviensis that then also spread to the south of the Alps, in northern Italy, from Ivrea to Verona. In 1944, however, Pierre Salmon proved the hypothesis on which this theory was based to be untrue; namely, the origin in Luxeuil of a famous Lectionary of the 7th century that was preserved in that library until the end of the 18th century (today in Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Lat. 9427). The writing has thus remained without a clear place of origin, and it is called “type a merovingian (because it is characterized by the letter a in two strokes). New proposals for the origin of the Lectionary have been proposed (the female monastery of Chelles near Paris, or the Lyon region) but they are neither definitive nor unanimously accepted.

This Merovingian cursive script tends to be vertical and have strong lateral compression of the strokes. An example of the writing can be observed in a prayer added to a blank page of a codex containing the so-called Missale Gothicum probably in the 8th century. The “Missale” is in fact a Sacramentary, and among the oldest witnesses of the Gallican liturgy, written between the early seventh and 8th century (Reg. lat. 317, f. 136v).

Reg. lat. 317, f. 136v

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11.1.2 “Type a-z” merovingian script (of Laon)

Another typification of the Merovingian bookhand was formed over the 8th century at Laon, known as “type a-z on account of the characteristics of these two letters: the a is similar to that of Luxeuil, but more angular; the z is constituted by a high tip tilted to the right, which exceeds the normal alignment considerably, and has two small loops at the top and at the bottom. Unlike the “type a” on which it depends, this script tends to be horizontal and features the frequent vertical flattening of the strokes (perhaps due to the influence of Uncial and the semi-Uncial). Only a dozen codices have been recorded to contain the script.

minuscola a-z.jpg
Letters "a" and "z" of the Laon type.

11.1.3 Merovingian script of corbie: “type a-b” and type “Mordramnus”

In the second half of the 8th century in the Frankish kingdom, the most prominent center of writing was the abbey of Corbie, in the Somme, Picardy, founded around 660 by initiative of Queen Batilde, with the support of the abbot of Luxeuil, whence the first monks came. Since its foundation it was closely connected to the court and therefore also to its chancery. The writing called “type a-b came to be called such due to the particular form of these letters. Originating from the elaboration of the Merovingian chancery script, this became the most characteristic script of Corbie, although probably not the oldest, because it has been verified only beginning from the abbey of Adalard (ca.775- 814 and 821-826). A few dozen codices with this writing have been found.

corbie a-b.jpg
"Type a-b" Corbie alphabet

The characteristic letters are:

  • a: open, with the first shaft straight and the second one curved, which visually looks like i + c;
  • b: with an open bow and a horizontal upper line that starts from the shaft but does not close in a loop.

Also noteworthy:

  • ȩ (e with cedilla): that indicates the diphthong ae;
  • g: shaped like a 3.

At Corbie there were several writings in use at the same time, most of which derived from semi-Uncial and Merovingian, and the scriptorium of the abbey constituted a real experimental laboratory of research, often linked to the figures of the various abbots that had the office of guiding the monastery. For example, particular scripts have been identified as “of Leutcarius” (abbot 751-758), “type e-n, “type b, “type a”, but these are not so characteristic. Of particular importance is the writing called of Mordramnus (abbot 772-780). A bible of various volumes was made in Maurdramnus minuscule, although it is today incomplete (currently located in Amiens, Bibliothèque Municipale, mss. 6, 7, 9, 11, 12, and Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Lat. 13174). Extremely regular and calligraphic, with rounded letters and well-spaced words, this script has been considered by some paleographers as the first example of a Caroline minuscule.

The importance of Corbie, which had become an important cultural and political center with the beginning of the Carolingian dynasty, must not, however, overshadow the importance of other monasteries and cities such as Lyon, Fleury-sur-Loire, Saint Martin in Tours, where there were other scripts derived from Merovingian and often generically called pre-Caroline, like the “type h pre-Caroline in Burgundy; the pre-Caroline of Germany (Cologne, Mainz, Regensburg, Reichenau, Fulda and Lorsch); the Swiss pre-Caroline (again Reichenau, Chur, St. Gallen).