2. Script Types
2.1 The Roman Scripts
To find the origins of medieval western scripts (and indeed our modern type-faces) we need to look back at the Roman System of scripts. From about the beginning of the Christian era to the early seventh century this group of scripts pervaded the width and length of the Roman Empire. The hierarchical structure was dominated by Square Capitals, a set of letterforms particularly convenient for monumental epigraphic inscriptions (though very rarely found in manuscripts). Other more fluid forms, such as Rustic Capitals or the Old Roman Cursive, were used instead in manuscript contexts, as well as for private and administrative purposes. This group is normally described as the ‘Old Roman System of Scripts’. However, by the early fourth century, these had already evolved into a ‘New Roman System of Scripts’, among which the most influential styles are Uncial and Half-Uncial.
This is a formal, majuscule bookhand originally found in Greek and Latin manuscripts from the fourth century. It later arrived in the British Isles, where it was practised to a high standard at the twin monasteries of Jarrow and Monkwearmouth. The Codex Amiatinus [Florence, Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1] is undoubtedly one of their best known products in this script. Some of its main features include the overall roundness of its letter-forms (in contrast with earlier Square Capitals), the presence of some ascenders and descenders (despite being a majuscule script) and the absence of word division as the text is written in scriptura continua.
Click here for an example of Uncial from Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 48, England, s. vii ex. - viii in. Note the 'round' shape of M, as well as the asdender of D and the descender of G.
Whereas Uncial was a more formal, professional bookhand, by the sixth century Half-Uncial was common in ecclesiastical scriptoria. Its forms required fewer strokes and therefore it allowed scribes to write faster. Its influence was remarkable across the British Isles, and especially in Ireland where it evolved into the Irish script still in use today for the writing of Irish Gaelic. Besides the reduced number of strokes required, Half-Uncial features a round form of a (also known as ‘oc’ a), ‘lower case’ forms of b and d with straight backs and a shape of g with a flat head. As is the case with Uncial, Half-Uncial texts are often copied in scriptura continua.
Click here for an example of Half-Uncial from Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon, MS 0483, Italy, s. v-vi. Please note the 'minuscule' shapes of b and d; the flat-headed form of g which looks like a capital S (ergo, line 9); and the lack of separation between words.