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


Caroline Minuscule, from the end of the 8th century, had in practice unified Latin book writing, and in the 12th century it was more or less deeply diffused throughout the Latin West. In the second half of the century, however, some new circumstances appeared that eventually led to the development of a new script, an evolution from Caroline. This is the so-called GOTHIC script, by far the most highly represented form that exists among Latin manuscripts in libraries today, and which can be counted in the tens of thousands, manifested in all the different subtypes that took shape at different times and places.

The general context for the formation of gothic

Reg. lat. 16, f. 1r

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A moment of profound general transformation of civilization began in the 11th century and exploded in the 12th, also called the century of Rebirth (Haskins, The Renaissance). It involved the productive and economic world, ecclesial and political institutions, the structure of society and cultural life, which gave rise to remarkable flourishing of the arts and letters and many innovations in the field of studies.

The phenomenon of urbanization, that is, the transfer of large portions of the population from the countryside to the cities, settings that were much more active and open to new things, which offered greater possibilities of initiative, also entailed the need to adapt the structures and methods of scholastic teaching to the new and increased population. In the cities, new schools were built, the old ones were reinstated and multiplied near the cathedrals, from which there developed a system of higher education organized in the universities. Within the first decades of the 13th century, the system of education in the universities began to have their own autonomous institutions alongside the older institutions of Bologna (1088, recognized by the emperor in 1158) and of Paris (1170, recognized by King Philip II in 1200); Oxford (1201), Padua (1222), Naples (1224). The traditional places of teaching (also of higher institutions) that were found in the monasteries, located outside the cities, no longer met the needs of the city population. Besides the ancient religious orders, which had also seen a period of significant growth between the 11th and 12th centuries with the birth of very active new monastic formations like those of the Carthusians, the Camaldolese, the Premostratensians and above all the Cistercians, at the beginning of the 13th century, new groups of religious were formed that emphasized and placed active participation in city life at the center of their work. They were no longer monks living in isolated monasteries, but friars who lived in convents founded within the cities and who put themselves at the service of preaching and of the many poor who were in the city. They were the Friars Preachers, founded in southern France by Dominic de Guzmán (called Dominicans), and the Minor Friars, founded in central Italy by Francis of Assisi (called Franciscans). These orders exercised a great influence (in addition to other activities) also in the world of university studies, and quickly adopted the new scholastic method of teaching.


The growing number of students and professors and the new methodologies that developed for teaching (structured in divisions such as the lectio, quaestio, disputatio) led to a profound transformation in the way of reading, studying and producing books, which were adapted to new needs. These were didactic and scholarly needs that responded to the need to consult a text quickly in order to find what was sought, and therefore a disconnected or fragmentary reading rather than a continuous reading. These needs were addressed in practice: the individual parts of the text were identified more precisely by the use of highly visible initials (for example, alternately drawn in red and blue), by the use of capital letters, paragraph marks, punctuation, division and all that was useful in dividing and rationalizing the text. Furthermore, it was necessary to make better use of the written page, and this was obtained through a script with reduced shafts, and hence less space between one line and the other, and through systems of abbreviations (which became very frequent).

A technical factor became of critical importance for the formation of Gothic writing. This had to do with the increasing use of a pen with the point cut on the left, a residual use (although perhaps indirect) that had already been present in Insular and Beneventan scripts. In addition to a significant contrast between the thin, oblique, vertical strokes and the horizontal, wide strokes, the use of this writing tool tends to reduce the thickness of the curves, which can also “break” into several very short sections joined together in acute angles, and which often produce an initial stroke of the shafts that is cut obliquely to the left at the top.