History and Culture: The Story of Handwriting from Ancient Rome to the Middle Ages

In this chapter, you learned how to talk about letters and different alphabets and kinds of writing in Latin. Today, most of the world’s peoples write in an alphabetic script. It is remarkable that most of the letters that make up the alphabets used by most of the world’s peoples are derived from handwriting in the last centuries of the Roman empire. Indeed, the letters used in most alphabets today are remarkably similar to the script employed circa 100 CE in the Roman garrisons on Hadrian’s wall. But what is this Roman alphabet, or Latin script, where does it come from, and what is the story of its development? 

The earliest Roman scripts, to judge from inscriptions, were written entirely in capital letters. The most formal variety was a majuscule (or capital) script, which is called square capitals (capitalis quadrata), also known as capitalis elegans, or elegant capitals. It was employed mainly in inscriptions, and so it is also alternatively termed scriptura monumentalis, or monumental writing. Letters in capitalis quadrata are large and rectangular, written in between two parallel lines which they do not cross. They are characterized by sharp, straight lines, supple curves, thin and thick strokes, angled stressing and incised serifs. Though the capitalis quadrata script appears frequently in inscriptions, it was also used for many important manuscripts, like those of Virgil. Below is an example of the capitalis quadrata script used in one famous manuscript, the Vergilius Augusteus, dating from the 4th century CE and containing fragments of the Aeneid:

Vergilius Augusteus (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Lat. fol. 416)

Given the laborious mechanics of producing such a stiff and slow script, it is no wonder that only very few manuscripts in capitalis quadrata are extant. The need to find a less tedious, but equally elegant, script led to the development of the rustic capital, or capitalis rustica. Rustic capital letters are less rigid and stand more closely together. They are taller than they are wide, and are far easier to write with a quill than the square capitals.

Capitalis rustica was used between the 1st and the 9th centuries, but was most in vogue between the 4th and the 6th centuries. The earliest extant example of writing in rustic capitals is a fragment of a poem on the Battle of Actium (Carmen de bello Actiaco). Composed by an unknown author, the text was found in the ruins of Herculaneum, the flourishing town buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. The script was mainly used for producing sumptuous copies of the works of great authors of classical Rome; the only Christian authors whose works were written in rustic capitals are Prudentius and Sedulius.

The works of most Christian authors through Late Antiquity and the early centuries of the Middle Ages were instead written in the uncial script. Uncial letters are still capitals, but they may more accurately be described as transitioning between majuscule and minuscule letters. The name “uncial” is first attested in St. Jerome’s (c. 342-420 CE) preface to the Book of Job:

…habeant qui volunt veteres libros, vel in membranis purpureis auro argentoque descriptos, vel uncialibus, ut vulgo aiunt, litteris,

“…those who want can possess ancient books, either those of purple parchment embellished with gold and silver, or those in what are commonly called uncial letters,”

However, the first use of the term “uncial” to describe a script similar to the capitalis quadrata and capitalis rustica scripts was by the French Benedictine scholar Jean Mabillon in the early 18th century. Although uncial letters are also majuscules written between two virtual ruled lines, ascenders and descenders are more obvious in some letters. There is no complete commitment to make all the bodies the same height, and the forms are particularly rounded.

When Latin became the official language of the Western church, the uncial, a formal script which was nonetheless quick to pen, was preferred to the capitalis rustica, common to pagan Roman literature. The uncial script would surpass the capitalis rustica as the most popular script from the 5th century CE and well into the 8th. A large number of the extant manuscripts employing uncials, around 500 in total, are of works by Christian authors.

While scripts like the capitalis rustica and uncials were used primarily for the long and difficult process of copying books, one might also wonder whether these same scripts were used for more mundane affairs, like business documents or personal correspondence. This was not really the case. Instead, Roman cursive, a flowing script written without lifting the pen, was developed for just such a purpose. There are two main types of Roman cursive writing: Old Roman Cursive, in use through the first three centuries CE, and New Roman Cursive, which superseded its predecessor in the later 3rd century CE and on.

Old Roman Cursive is based on capitalis quadrata, and is for this reason sometimes called “majuscule cursive” or “capital cursive.” Its characters are small, slanting somewhat to the right, employing [ligatures and abbreviations, and it can be difficult to read. In fact, the Roman author Plautus in makes reference to the difficulty of reading cursive writing in his play Pseudolus:

Pseudolus: Hās quidem pol crēdō nisi Sibulla lēgerit, interpretārī alium posse nēminem.

Calidorus: Cūr inclēmenter dīcis lepidīs litterīs lepidīs tabellīs lepidā cōnscrīptīs manū?

Pseudolus: An, opsecrō hercle, habent quās gallīnae manūs? Nam hās quidem gallīna scrīpsit.

Calidorus: Odiōsus mihi es.

Pseudolus: I don’t think anyone could read these letters apart from the Sibyl; nobody else could make sense of them.

Calidorus: Why are you being so hard on pretty little letters on pretty little tablets written by a pretty little hand?

Pseudolus: Good heavens, are there hens that have hands? Because it looks like a hen wrote these letters.

Calidorus: I hate you.

But it was the development of New Roman Cursive, also known as Minuscule Cursive or Later Roman Cursive, which would become very influential in the evolution of writing in the era after the Roman empire: both the half-uncial and what are called the “national hands” developed from New Roman Cursive script. The letters of New Roman Cursive are large and stand up straight, although they sometimes slant slightly to the right. Ascenders and descenders stand out boldly, with loops which generally descend to the right of the main stroke.

From about the 3rd century CE on, the so-called half-uncial script began to develop out of New Roman Cursive. This is perhaps not such an apt name: half-uncial does not seem to developed out of the uncial script, and is instead characterized by very pronounced up-and-down strokes, as well as a whole repertoire of possible ligatures and contractions. More than that, the half-uncial is often considered the ancestor of modern “lower-case” scripts. When it caught on in the 3rd century CE, it was mostly used in Italy and Southern France, but eventually spread all over Europe: it probably accompanied Augustine of Canterbury to England. As a book-hand, the half-uncial developed at about the same time as the uncial, although the uncial was preferred for more formal works until the 7th century.

When the Roman Empire in Western Europe collapsed over the course of the 5th century, the scripts used by the Germanic peoples who settled in formerly Roman lands began to assume distinctive characteristics. New Roman Cursive formed the basis for the development of the Lombardic, Visigothic and Merovingian scripts in Italy, Spain and France, while the half-uncial gave rise to the insular script of Ireland and England. Although Merovingian script in particular gradually became neater, rounder, and more legible, the impact of Charlemagne and his program of renovatio cannot be overstated in the development of the Caroline minuscule, arguably the greatest achievement of the middle ages, a script that remained influential for the next 400 years, fell into some disuse for a while, but then was resurrected and improved upon by the humanists of the Renaissance. Charlemagne was interested in restoring the lost glory and magnificence of the Roman empire and his military campaigns helped ensure this. His 46 year reign offered a stability not experienced since Roman times. More importantly, he was also interested in the revival of learning and culture.

To this end, he invited the English scholar Alcuin of York to lead his palace school at his capital, Aachen, where Alcuin was master from 782 to 796. Considering the proliferation of regional scripts a hindrance to the dissemination of culture, Alcuin worked at achieving uniformity in the art of writing throughout Charlemagne’s empire. “With a passion and a thoroughness which prefigures the scholars of the Renaissance, he copies the letters carved on Roman monuments or written in surviving manuscripts and selects from them to establish a pure classical style – with the addition of the minuscule letters of monastic tradition.” Building on a foundation of scripts that had come before, among them the Merovingian, Visigothic and Anglo-Saxon minuscules, Alcuin achieved an outstanding hand with a hitherto unmatched degree of uniformity, clarity and legibility. From then on, the” dissemination of cultural writings moved faster and with fewer errors”. However, the clarity of the Caroline minuscule is lost in the 11th century, degenerating into the Black-letter style, but the humanists in the 15th century will revive the Caroline minuscule, which will eventually prove very influential in the development of the modern Times New Roman script. Below is an example of the Caroline minuscule script, an image of the manuscript Vaticanus Reginensis Latinus 762.