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

8.1 Use and characteristics of the semi-uncial

Semi-Uncial is a minuscule script, whose letters are clearly confined between a quattrolinear scheme. It has the following characteristics:

  • there are no new letters (all are already present in the Minuscule of previous centuries), but their design is more rigid;
  • some letters tend to be rounded in form, with loops and curved lines;
  • the shafts, both upward and downward, are shortened;
  • the writing has a vertical flow and is not inclined to the right like in cursive scripts;
  • the strokes are less subtle, probably due to the transition from papyrus to parchment and to the use of quill pens;
  • often the ascending shafts have an enlarged form (called “a club”) due to the retracing of the pen or due to a second stroke obtained when lifting the pen from the folio, or when moving it up or down.
Alfabeto semionciale.jpg
Alphabet of semi-Uncial (Arch. Cap. S. Pietro. D. 182)

Characteristic letters include:

  • a: with a rounded form, open and later closed by a straight or curved headstroke;
  • g: with a “hook” shape, which normally descends below the baseline;
  • r: the first stroke is shortened and tends not to run below the baseline, while in the second stroke, the bow has been eliminated and becomes a single sinuous line.

Other noteworthy traits:

  • b: with a single bow, to the right;
  • d: with a straight shaft and bow to the left;
  • e: with a thin cross-stroke that touches the upper curve, forming a slightly closed loop;
  • f: with a rounded headstroke and a shaft that falls just below the baseline;
  • m: with the initial stroke higher than the following ones;
  • n: has mainly the same form as in Capital script;
  • s: does not run below the baseline;
  • t: with a “sickle” shape, the vertical stroke is not straight but curved or arched.

Semi-Uncial was not used for biblical texts, as the more solemn script of Uncial was used for these, but rather for texts of study and of reading in use among communities and religious schools (Fathers of the Church and other Christian authors, biblical commentaries, canonistic collections). In the 6th century it became the second most popular book script in circulation (after Uncial) and it is estimated that approximately a third of book manuscripts produced in the West were made with this writing (Elias Avery Lowe, in his Codices Latini antiquiores, has recorded about 160 surviving specimens). The evolution of semi-Uncial, and therefore its dating, is rather difficult to determine and the criteria proposed by paleographers (frequency in the use of certain forms of the letters) are not congruent with the numerous exceptions that the writing presents during the entire period of the its use, which continued until the beginning of the 8th century.

Semi-Uncial did not however fall into a sort of disuse that was deprived of all subsequent derivatives, as in the case of the uncial. Due to the presence of elements derived from the Minuscule alphabet, semi-Uncial also merged with the growing trend in writing which later developed into the Caroline script.


Among the most ancient codices that contain semi-Uncial script in its definitive form is the manuscript Arch. Cap. S. Pietro D.182, with texts by Hilary of Poitiers, of the 5th or 6th century. A good example is also Vat. lat. 1322, which contains the Acts of the Synod of Chalcedon, and dates from the 6th century.