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


Between the 2nd and the 3rd centuries AD, a profound transformation occurred that constituted one of the most important changes in the history of Latin writing: the birth of MINUSCULE. This script is very different from the previous capital scripts, which were always confined to a bilinear scheme (one wherein the letters are written between two lines), even among the variants of set hands that tend to be more cursive and less set. Minuscule instead is written in a quattrolinear scheme, wherein almost half of the letters of the alphabet (which also change their shape) have extensions (ascenders and/or descenders) that supersede the bilinear structure by occupying the upper or lower space. The birth of Minuscule occurred in the moment of transition from the roll to the codex, and determined the way of writing of all subsequent eras, first by hand and then at press. It is a phenomenon that concerns not only book writing, but also everyday writing. The issue as the motives and the manner of transition from Capitals to Minuscule is highly debated among paleographers and two very different hypotheses have been proposed.

Alfabeto della minuscola (antica o primitiva).jpg
Alphabet of ancient or primitive minuscule

The hypothesis of Jean Mallon and other French paleographers such as Charles Perrat and Robert Marichal was elaborated in the years 1938-1955. This view considers that Minuscule developed in the realm of book writing by a purely technical and graphic process. This conclusion was reached by analyzing the ductus (order of sequence and direction of strokes) of the individual letters to understand how the development transpired from the capital letter to the lower-case one (as a case in point, the “B” has the bow to the right in the capital letter and in the lower-case letter to the left). Differences in the writing angle (that is, the angle between the position of the writing support and the baseline), permit corresponding differences in the inclination of the writing, which makes it possible to achieve two different types of writing. The reasons for this change of the writing angle can be identified in the transition from the roll to the codex, or in the different way of cutting the tip of the calamus or the quill pen (the use of which starts to spread) or the way in which the writing instrument is held. Two fragments were analyzed to support this hypothesis (Fragmentum de bellis macedonicis from the late 1st century AD, today in London, British Library, Pap. Oxy. I, 30, on parchment, and the Livy Epitome, from the 3rd century, London, British Library, Pap. Oxy. IV, 668, on papyrus).

The hypothesis of Giorgio Cencetti is different; this view developed over the years 1953 to 1962, and which was subsequently revived and supported by others such as Armando Petrucci, Jan Olaf Tjäder, Emanuele Casamassima and Alessandro Pratesi. This view instead maintains that the minuscule script developed within the context of everyday writing from the private sphere and more precisely within the context of graffiti writing, which for centuries coexisted with the capital script effected on stone, along with Book Capitals and with Cursive Capitals. Beginning from the critique of the examples used by Mallon to support his thesis, and observing that the theory of the writing angle cannot always be univocally applied, we have come to understand that the hypothesis of the creation of the minuscule script in the area of book writing was incorrect; rather, it should be considered to have originated in the everyday writing used by the less learned classes of Roman society, since these were much more dynamic and open to innovations. This seems to have been proven true by the study of graffiti (work of semi-illiterate people) of Condatomagos in Spain (also published by Marichal in 1988) and other peripheral areas. The same kind of writing, all of which dates back to the first to the 3rd centuries, can also be seen in Rome, in the catacombs of St. Sebastian. This hypothesis also seems to be confirmed by the widespread diffusion of writing among various social classes, which confined the use of solemn Book Capitals to classes that continued to dwindle in number, while in everyday writing forms continued to develop, which then led to Minuscule. An important comparison may also be made with artistic production, which advanced in two directions: the traditional and noble production, and the so-called popular/provincial production, which in the 3rd century, with the arrival of new social classes in power, became the official art of the empire. Something similar might have happened in the graphic area of writing. Between the 3rd and 5th centuries, various types of books were produced (school texts, juridical texts, glossaries, Christian) with this writing, which came to be defined as OLD MINUSCULE (or PRIMITIVE), while there were no literary texts which continued to be written in Book Capitals.