Medieval Writing
Roman Scripts
The Roman alphabet was ultimately derived from that of the Greeks through the mediation of the Etruscans. Within the Classical Roman period scripts continued to evolve. There is a broad division between Old Roman scripts and New Roman scripts, although the former did not actually disappear, but were used for different purposes. This change did not occur abruptly, but the New Roman scripts had evolved by the 4th century. (See Lowe (ed) 1934-1966)
These maps show the spread of Old Roman and New Roman scripts throughout the Empire.
The various forms of these scripts were the basis for the development of all the scripts of the middle ages. The Latin alphabet was basically the same as that in use today, but lacked the letters J, V and W. I and U were both used as consonants as well as vowels. K, Y and Z all existed but were rare letters. This usage of the alphabet continued in medieval Latin.
The most formal of the Old Roman scripts was square capitals or capitalis quadrata, used mainly for carved inscriptions where it is also known as scriptura monumentalis. It was an angular majuscule script, often written without breaks between words or with words separated by dots.
Roman altar Inscription in square capitals on a Roman altar in the museum at Chesters Fort on Hadrian's Wall.
Roman tombstone
Carved Roman tombstones like this one in Hexham Abbey church, Northumberland, bore inscriptions in square capitals.
It has only rarely been found in manuscripts, sometimes in the early medieval period as a display script for headings. Some early Spanish manuscripts were evidently written in square capitals. It has occasionally been found in very early manuscripts of the highest cultural value.
square capitals Square capitals used in a manuscript of Virgil's Aeneid from the Library of St Gall (Cod.1394,p.12). (From Steffens 1929)
The works of Virgil were some of the highest valued of the early medieval or post-Roman period. The manuscript leaves of the example above were found doing duty as book covers.
Square capitals used as part of a decorative heading in an 11th century gospel book (Cambridge, Trinity College Library, MS.B.10.4). (From New Palaeographical Society 1903)
square capital heading
Looking ahead for a moment, the introduction of Caroline mimuscule as a formal book hand from around the 8th century onwards went along with the revival of a hierarchy of older majuscule scripts for headings, of which square capitals was the most formal.
More commonly used in early manuscripts as a book hand was rustic capitals, a majuscule script with rather more rounded letter forms that were easier to produce with a pen than the angular forms of square capitals. This script from the Old Roman period continued into use into the medieval era, mainly for display headings, although occasionally appearing in the early period for full texts. The term capitalis designates generally these Old Roman and later majuscule scripts.
rustic capitals

Rustic capitals used in a page of text in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript, the 8th century Vespasian Psalter (British Library, Cotton Vespasian A1, f.6), by permission of the British Library.

This particular example is used elsewhere in this website as a script sample and paleography exercise.

Old Roman cursive In the 1st century AD, the script used for business, administration and for private letters was Old Roman cursive. This was a majuscule script, despite its cursive qualities, and is therefore sometimes known as cursive capitals. At this time papyrus was the usual writing material and the usual form of manuscripts was as a roll.
An example of Old Roman cursive from a purchase agreement of AD 166 on papyrus (British Library Papyrus CCXXIX). (From Steffens 1929)
You can look at this particular example in more detail as a script sample on this website. I have not gone so far as to provide a paleography exercise.

You can study Old Roman cursive in some detail on the Vindolanda Tablets Online web site.

The abovementioned website reminds us that writing was carried out also on ephemeral media such as wooden tablets written in ink, and on wax tablets written with a stylus, which is why so much more has been lost than has ever been found.

Somewhat more formal variants of Old Roman cursive are in existence for literary works. These hybrid forms have sometimes been designated as literary cursive.
Between the 2nd and the early 4th centuries there was a continuing change to both formal and cursive scripts. There was, at the same time, a change from the use of papyrus to parchment, and from the roll to the codex for literary works. This had an enormous effect on the corpus of Classical works which were to survive through the middle ages, but that is another part of the story.
The formal book hand of the late Roman period and beyond until the 7th century was uncial. This majuscule script had particularly rounded forms and may have been influenced by Greek book scripts, as well as incorporating cursive forms of several letters. The Bibles, psalters and other religious books of the missionary monks, who reintroduced Christianity across Europe as far as Britain, were written in uncial script. It was used as a display script for headings up until the 12th century.
early uncial Sample from a 3rd or 4th century copy of the Epitome of Livy on papyrus (British Library Papyrus 1532(1)), by permission of the British Library.
The above is a very early example of uncial, mixed in with some minuscule forms, written on papyrus and recovered from Egypt. It looks a trifle untidy compared to the very formal varieties in use in the early medieval period, as shown below.
uncial Uncial script in a 6th century Italian Gospel (British Library, Harley 1775, f.195), by permission of the British Library.
A script sample and paleography exercise is available for this particular example elsewhere on this website.
Half uncial developed as a book hand over the same period, although uncial was favoured for more formal works until the 7th century. It is a minuscule script with most letters derived from cursive forms, but it had evolved into a rounded and formal book hand. Despite the name, it was not derived from uncial. It was in use until around the 8th century.
half uncial Half uncial script of the early 6th century manuscript of St Hilarius of Poiteirs on the Trinity in the Archives of St Peter in Rome. (From Thompson 1912).
This example can also be investigated in more detail through a script sample and paleography exercise.
Cursive writing, used for business and administrative purposes and for personal handwriting, also evolved into a minuscule form. This is known as New Roman cursive. It is alleged that there are scholars around who can read it.
New Roman cursive from a 5th century letter on papyrus, found in Egypt (Strassburg, Pap. lat. Argent.1). (From Steffens 1929)
NewRoman cursive
There is a script sample for this example, but no paleography exercise as it is not medieval, and I had neither the expertise nor the strength for it.
There were hybridised forms of these scripts within the Roman period, sometimes designated with names such as cursive half uncial or quarter uncial. This process of evolution and hybridisation with cursive forms resulted in the development of a diversity of minuscule scripts in the 7th and 8th centuries.

Post-Roman scripts

History of Scripts
What is Paleography?

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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last updated 10/3/2009.