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


The name, CAROLINE, was given to this writing because of its close relation to the so-called Carolingian Renaissance, the great cultural movement that flourished in the West during the reign of Charlemagne, between the 8th and 9th centuries. It was also called francisca for its origin in the Frankish region, and antiqua by humanists who revived it in the context of the modern Gothic. It constituted the graphic medium which served to express the new universalistic Roman-Christian culture of the Carolingian empire.

Vat. lat. 3868, f. 10v

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The origins of caroline

The matter of its origins has given rise to much discussion, which is particularly complicated by the fact that the many paleographers who have dealt with it have emphasized various aspects of the problem in diverse ways: the cultural premises of the Carolingian Renaissance, the explicit intervention of the emperor and his circle of advisers, the writing center where it originated, the examination of the writings to which Caroline owes its form, the dating and location of manuscripts by which the various hypotheses have been constructed.

The following theories have gradually counterposed each other since the second half of the nineteenth century: a Franco-Western thesis (Délisle, Mémoire: as the formative center, the monastery of St. Martin of Tours, guided by Alcuin, and the script originated from semi-Uncial models), a Franco-Eastern thesis (Menzel, Janitschek, Die Trierer Ada-handschrift origins in the Palatine school in Aachen, during the reign of Pepin the Short), a Roman thesis (Giorgi, Appunti, Federici, Il S. Ilario: Rome as the place of birth of the script, which grew out of semi-Uncial models). Scholars have also differed according to those who supported a derivation of Caroline from pre-Caroline Merovingian scripts and those who called attention to the dual contribution in the birth of Caroline, that is, that it came from the cursive script and semi-Uncial. Those who sought the origin of writing in a given center opposed the thesis of a polygenetic origin (Schiaparelli, Il codice, Steinhacker, Zum Liber Diurnus, Lehmann, Aufgaben), that is, of a similar development that began from equal models and would have produced similar results in different places. In the second half of the twentieth century, the hypothesis (Cencetti, Postilla) of a more remote ancestry, dating back to a Late Antique minuscule as model, present in the manuscripts of the 5th and 6th century, copied at the time of the Carolingian renaissance, and preserved in school practice as a heritage of models used in basic teaching (Petrucci, Libro).

To enrich our reflection on the origins of Caroline, however, in addition to paleographic considerations, we must also take into account the role played by the court of Charlemagne and his cultural program that was achieved with a vast movement of revival for studies and for schools, as well as the continued undertaking of a liturgical reform, that had already begun under his father, Pepin the Short. Significant in this regard was a capitulary (Admonitio generalis) issued by Charlemagne in 789, with several ordinances: in addition to indicating numerous rules concerning the clergy, the uniformity of the application of religious life in the monasteries and various other topics, he recommended that schools be set up for children in bishoprics and monasteries, and that one be precise in the copying of sacred books (biblical and liturgical), for which it was necessary that they be without errors and written with every care so as to be correct and clear, and therefore entrusted to be copied and corrected by adult men and not by inexperienced young people. Those prescriptions were reiterated by Charlemagne in 805 and his successor Louis the Pious in 816.

The discussion does not seem to be over yet but, regardless of how the question of origins is resolved, some facts must be observed:

  • The production of Carolingian books was enormous: the number of codices from the 9th century alone that survive reaches a total of over 7000 (Bischoff, Panorama), in contrast to the approximately 2000 that can be calculated for all the preceding centuries (E. A. Lowe and subsequent scholars); this certainly also depends on the deterioration of the ancient papyrus codices and the long time interval that has gone by, but undoubtedly the number also gives witness to the phenomenon of increased literacy, linked to the renewal of even elementary school education, which was based on ancient models.
  • Next to the new Caroline minuscule, there was the rediscovery, or reinvention, of scripts that imitated ancient Capitals, Uncial and semi-Uncial. These phenomena of imitation were consciously sought after, and reveal local positions in specific environments (the monastery of St. Martin of Tours and the Palatine school at the imperial court in Aachen). These scripts remained limited to a small circle, while Caroline minuscule spread throughout Europe.
  • In the book production of the Carolingian period, a hierarchical graphic system returned, by which different scripts were ordered in the same manuscript, just as it was custom to have in the period of Late Antiquity, with the use of display scripts for titles, chapters, and endings.