World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article


Not to be confused with Palaeogeography.

Palaeography or palæography, also spelled paleography (from Greek παλαιός palaiós, "old" and γράφειν graphein, "to write"), is the study of ancient writing. Included in the discipline is the practice of deciphering, reading, and dating historical manuscripts,[2] and the cultural context of writing, including the methods with which writing and books were produced, and the history of scriptoria.[3]


Palaeography can be an essential skill for historians and philologists, as it tackles two main difficulties. First, since the style of a single alphabet in each given language has evolved constantly, it is necessary to know how to decipher its individual characters as they existed in various eras. Second, scribes often used many abbreviations, usually so as to write more quickly and sometimes to save space, so the specialist-palaeographer must know how to interpret them. Knowledge of individual letter-forms, ligatures, punctuation, and abbreviations enables the palaeographer to read and understand the text. The palaeographer must know, first, the language of the text (that is, a 21st-century English or French speaker must become expert in the relevant earlier forms of these languages); and second, the historical usages of various styles of handwriting, common writing customs, and scribal or notarial abbreviations. Philological knowledge of the language, vocabulary, and grammar generally used at a given time or place can help palaeographers identify ancient or more recent forgeries versus authentic documents.

Knowledge of writing materials is also essential to the study of handwriting and to the identification of the periods in which a document or manuscript may have been produced.[4] An important goal may be to assign the text a date and a place of origin: this is why the palaeographer must take into account the style and formation of the manuscript and the handwriting used in it.[5]

Ancient Near East

Main article: History of writing

Aramaic palaeography

The Aramaic language was the international trade language of the Ancient Middle East, originating in what is modern-day Syria, between 1000 and 600 BC. It spread from the Mediterranean coast to the borders of India, becoming extremely popular and being adopted by many people, both with or without any previous writing system. The Aramaic script was written in a consonantal form with a direction from right to left. The Aramaic alphabet, a modified form of Phoenician, was the ancestor of the modern Arabic and Hebrew scripts, as well as the Brāhmī script, the parent writing system of most modern abugidas in India, Southeast Asia, Tibet, and Mongolia. Initially, the Aramaic script did not differ from the Phoenician, but then the Aramaeans simplified some of the letters, thickened and rounded their lines: a specific feature of its letters is the distinction between d and r. One innovation in Aramaic is the matres lectionis system to indicate certain vowels. Early Phoenician-derived scripts did not have letters for vowels, and so most texts recorded just consonants. Most likely as a consequence of phonetic changes in North Semitic languages, the Aramaeans reused certain letters in the alphabet to represent long vowels. The letter aleph was employed to write /ā/, he for /ō/, yod for /ī/, and vav for /ū/.

Aramaic writing and language supplanted Babylonian cuneiform and Akkadian language, even in their homeland in Mesopotamia. The wide diffusion of Aramaic letters led to its writing being used not only in monumental inscriptions, but also on papyrus and potsherds. Aramaic papyri have been found in large numbers in Egypt, especially at Elephantine – among them are official and private documents of the Jewish military settlement in 5 BC. In the Aramaic papyri and potsherds, words are separated usually by a small gap, as in modern writing. At the turn of the 3rd to 2nd centuries BC, the heretofore uniform Aramaic letters developed new forms, as a result of dialectal and political fragmentation in several subgroups. The most important of these is the so-called square Hebrew block script, followed by Palmyrene, Nabataean, and the much later Syriac script.

Aramaic is usually divided into three main parts:[6]

  1. Old Aramaic (in turn subdivided into Ancient, Imperial, Old Eastern and Old Western Aramaic)
  2. Middle Aramaic, and
  3. Modern Aramaic of the present day.

The term Middle Aramaic refers to the form of Aramaic which appears in pointed texts and is reached in the 3rd century AD with the loss of short unstressed vowels in open syllables, and continues until the triumph of Arabic.

Old Aramaic appeared in the 11th century BC as the official language of the first Aramaean states. The oldest witnesses to it are inscriptions from northern Syria of the 10th to 8th centuries BC, especially extensive state treaties (c. 750 BC) and royal inscriptions. The early Old Ancient should be classified as "Ancient Aramaic" and consists of two clearly distinguished and standardised written languages, the Early Ancient Aramaic and the Late Ancient Aramaic. Aramaic was influenced at first principally by Akkadian, then from the 5th century BC by Persian and from the 3rd century BC onwards by Greek, as well as by Hebrew, especially in Palestine.[6] As Aramaic evolved into the imperial language of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the script used to write it underwent a change into something more cursive. The best examples of this script come from documents written on papyrus from Egypt.[7] About 500 BC, Darius I (522–486) made the Aramaic used by the Achaemenid imperial administration into the official language of the western half of the Persian Empire. This so-called "Imperial Aramaic" (the oldest dated example, from Egypt, belonging to 495 BC) is based on an otherwise unknown written form of Ancient Aramaic from Babylonia. In orthography, Imperial Aramaic preserves historical forms – alphabet, orthography, morphology, pronunciation, vocabulary, syntax and style are highly standardised. Only the formularies of the private documents and the Proverbs of Ahiqar have maintained an older tradition of sentence structure and style. Imperial Aramaic immediately replaced Ancient Aramaic as a written language and, with slight modifications, it remained the official, commercial and literary language of the Near East until gradually, beginning with the fall of the Persian Empire (331 BC) and ending in the 4th century AD, it was replaced by Greek, Persian, the eastern and western dialects of Aramaic and Arabic, though not without leaving its traces in the written form of most of these. In its original Achaemenid form, Imperial Aramaic is found in texts of the 5th to 3rd centuries BC. These come mostly from Egypt and especially from the Jewish military colony of Elephantine, which existed at least from 530 to 399 BC.[8]

See also

Greek palaeography

A history of Greek handwriting must be incomplete owing to the fragmentary nature of evidence. If one rules out the inscriptions on stone or metal, which belong to the science of epigraphy, we are practically dependent for the period preceding the 4th or 5th century AD on the papyri from Egypt (cf. papyrology), the earliest of which take back our knowledge only to the end of the 4th century BC. This limitation is less serious than might appear, since the few manuscripts not of Egyptian origin which have survived from this period, like the parchments from Avroman[9] or Dura,[10] the Herculaneum papyri, and a few documents found in Egypt but written elsewhere, reveal a uniformity of style in the various portions of the Greek world; but some differences can be discerned, and it is probable that, were there more material, distinct local styles could be traced.[11]

Further, any given period several types of hand may exist together. There was a marked difference between the hand used for literary works (generally called "uncials" but, in the papyrus period, better styled "book-hand") and that of documents ("cursive") and within each of these classes several distinct styles were employed side by side; and the various types are not equally well represented in the surviving papyri.

The development of any hand is largely influenced by the materials used. To this general rule the Greek script is no exception. Whatever may have been the period at which the use of papyrus or leather as a writing material began in Greece (and papyrus was employed in the 5th century BC), it is highly probable that for some time after the introduction of the alphabet the characters were incised with a sharp tool on stones or metal far oftener than they were written with a pen. In cutting a hard surface, it is easier to form angles than curves; in writing the reverse is the case; hence the development of writing was from angular letters ("capitals") inherited from epigraphic style to rounded ones ("uncials"). But only certain letters were affected by this development, in particular E (uncial ε), Σ (c), Ω (ω), and to a lesser extent A (α).

Ptolemaic period

The earliest Greek papyrus yet discovered is probably that containing the Persae of Timotheus, which dates from the second half of the 4th century BC and its script has a curiously archaic appearance. E, Σ, and Ω have the capital form, and apart from these test letters the general effect is one of stiffness and angularity.[12] More striking is the hand of the earliest dated papyrus, a contract of 311 BC. Written with more ease and elegance, it shows little trace of any development towards a truly cursive style; the letters are not linked, and though the uncial c is used throughout, E and Ω have the capital forms. A similar impression is made by the few other papyri, chiefly literary, dating from about 300 BC; E may be slightly rounded, Ω approach the uncial form, and the angular Σ occurs as a letter only in the Timotheus papyrus, though it survived longer as a numeral (= 200), but the hands hardly suggest that for at least a century and a half the art of writing on papyrus had been well established. Yet before the middle of the 3rd century BC, one finds both a practised book-hand and a developed and often remarkably handsome cursive.

These facts may be due to accident, the few early papyri happening to represent an archaic style which had survived along with a more advanced one; but it is likely that there was a rapid development at this period, due partly to the opening of Egypt, with its supplies of papyri, and still more to the establishment of the great Alexandrian Library, which systematically copied literary and scientific works, and to the multifarious activities of Hellenistic bureaucracy. From here onward, the two types of script were sufficiently distinct (though each influenced the other) to require separate treatment. Some literary papyri, like the roll containing Aristotle's Constitution of Athens, were written in cursive hands, and, conversely, the book-hand was occasionally used for documents. Since the scribe did not date literary rolls, such papyri are useful in tracing the development of the book-hand.[11]

The documents of the mid-3rd century BC show a great variety of cursive hands. There are none from chancelleries of the Hellenistic monarchs, but some letters, notably those of Apollonius, the finance minister of Ptolemy II, to this agent, Zeno, and those of the Palestianian sheikh, Toubias, are in a type of script which cannot be very unlike the Chancery hand of the time, and show the Ptolemaic cursive at its best. These hands have a noble spaciousness and strength, and though the individual letters are by no means uniform in size there is a real unity of style, the general impression being one of breadth and uprightness. H, with the cross-stroke high, Π, Μ, with the middle stroke reduced to a very shallow curve, sometimes approaching a horizontal line, Υ, and Τ, with its cross-bar extending much further to the left than to the right of the up-stroke, Γ and Ν, whose last stroke is prolonged upwards above the line, often curving backwards, are all broad; ε, c, θ and β, which sometimes takes the form of two almost perpendicular strokes joined only at the top, are usually small; ω is rather flat, its second loop reduced to a practically straight line. Partly by the broad flat tops of the larger letters, partly by the insertion of a stroke connecting those (like H, Υ) which are not naturally adapted to linking, the scribes produced the effect of a horizontal line along the top of the writing, from which the letters seem to hang. This feature is indeed a general characteristic of the more formal Ptolemaic script, but it is specially marked in the 3rd century BC.

Besides these hand of Chancery type, there are numerous less elaborate examples of cursive, varying according to the writer's skill and degree of education, and many of them strikingly easy and handsome.[according to whom?] In some cursiveness is carried very far, the linking of letters reaching the point of illegibility, and the characters sloping to the right. A is reduced to a mere acute angle (), T has the cross-stroke only on the left, ω becomes an almost straight line, H acquires a shape somewhat like h, and the last stroke of N is extended far upwards and at times flattened out until it is little more than a diagonal stroke to the right. The attempt to secure a horizontal line along the top is here abandoned. This style was not due to inexpertness, but to the desire for speed, being used especially in accounts and drafts, and was generally the work of practised writers. How well established the cursive hand had now become is shown in some wax tablets of this period, the writing on which, despite the difference of material, closely resemble the hands of papyri.[13]

Documents of the late 3rd and early 2nd centuries BC show, perhaps partly by the accident of survival (there is nothing analogous to the Apollonius letters, a loss of breadth and spaciousness. In the more formal types the letters stand rather stiffly upright, often without the linking strokes, and are more uniform in size; in the more cursive they are apt to be packed closely together. These features are more marked in the hands of the 2nd century. The less cursive often show am approximation to the book-hand, the letters growing rounder and less angular than in the 3rd century; in the more cursive linking was carried further, both by the insertion of coupling strokes and by the writing of several letters continuously without raising the pen, so that before the end of the century an almost current hand was evolved. A characteristic letter, which survived into the early Roman period, is T, with its cross-stroke made in two portions (variants:

The development of the Ptolemaic book-hand is difficult to trace, as there are few examples, mostly not datable on external grounds. Only for the 3rd century BC have we a secure basis. The hands of that period have an angular appearance; there is little uniformity in the size of individual letters, and though sometimes, notably in the Petrie papyrus containing the Phaedo of Plato, a style of considerable delicacy is attained, the book-hand in general shows less mastery than the contemporary cursive. In the 2nd century the letters grew rounder and more uniform in size, but in the 1st century there is perceptible, here as in the cursive hand, a certain disintegration. Probably at no time did the Ptolemaic book-hand acquire such unity of stylistic effect as the cursive.[14]

Roman period

Papyri of the Roman period are far more numerous and show greater variety. The cursive of the 1st century has a rather broken appearance, part of one character being often made separately from the rest and linked to the next letter. A form characteristic of the 1st and 2nd century and surviving after that only as a fraction sign (=) is η in the shape Chancery hand, with tall and laterally compressed letters, ο very narrow and α and ω often written high in the line. This style, from at least the latter part of the 2nd century, exercised considerable influence on the local hands, many of which show the same characteristics less pronounced; and its effects may be traced into the early part of the 4th century. Hands of the 3rd century uninfluenced by it show a falling off from the perfection of the 2nd century; stylistic uncertainty and a growing coarseness of execution mark a period of decline and transition.

Several different types of book-hand were used in the Roman period. Particularly handsome[according to whom?] is a round, upright hand seen, for example, in a British Museum papyrus containing Odyssey III. The cross-stroke of ε is high, Μ deeply curved and Α has the form α. Uniformity of size is well attained, and a few strokes project, and these but slightly, above or below the line. Another type, well called by palaeographer Schubart the "severe" style, has a more angular appearance and not infrequently slopes to the right; though handsome, it has not the sumptuous appearance of the former.[15] There are various classes of a less pretentious style, in which convenience rather than beauty was the first consideration and no pains were taken to avoid irregularities in the shape and alignment of the letters. Lastly may be mentioned a hand which is of great interest as being the ancestor of the type called (from its later occurrence in vellum codices of the Bible) the biblical hand. This, which can be traced back at least the late 2nd century, has a square, rather heavy appearance; the letters, of uniform size, stand upright, and thick and thin strokes are well distinguished. In the 3rd century the book-hand, like the cursive, appears to have deteriorated in regularity and stylistic accomplishment.

In the charred rolls found at Herculaneum and dating from about the beginning of our era, are specimens of Greek literary hands from outside Egypt; and a comparison with the Egyptian papyri reveals great similarity in style and shows that conclusions drawn from the henads of Egypt may, with caution, be applied to the development of writing in the Greek world generally.

Byzantine period

The cursive hand of the 4th century shows some uncertainty of character. Side by side with the style founded on the Chancery hand, regular in formation and with tall and narrow letters, which characterised the period of Diocletian, and lasted well into the century, we find many other types mostly marked by a certain looseness and irregularity. A general progress towards a florid and sprawling hand is easily recognisable, but a consistent and deliberate style was hardly evolved before the 5th century, from which unfortunately few dated documents have survived. Byzantine cursive tends to an exuberant hand, in which the long strokes are excessively extended and individual letters often much enlarged. But not a few hands of the 5th and 6th centuries are truly handsome and show considerable technical accomplishment. Both an upright and a sloping type occur and there are many less ornamental hands, but there gradually emerged towards the 7th century two general types, one (especially used in letters and contracts) a current hand, sloping to the right, with long strokes in such characters at τ, ρ, ξ, η (which has the h shape), ι, and κ, and with much linking of letters, and another (frequent in accounts), which shows, at least in essence, most of the forms of the later minuscule. (cf. below.) This is often upright, though a slope to the right is quite common, and sometimes, especially in one or two documents of the early Arab period, it has an almost calligraphic effect.

In the Byzantine period, the book-hand, which in earlier times had more than once approximated to the contemporary cursive, diverged widely from it.[11]

Vellum and paper manuscripts

The change from papyrus to vellum involved no such modification in the forms of letters as followed that from metal to papyrus. The justification for considering the two materials separately is that after the general adoption of vellum, the Egyptian evidence is first supplemented and later superseded by that of manuscripts from elsewhere, and that during this period the hand most used was one not previously employed for literary purposes.

Uncial hand

Pages from Codex Vaticanus (left) and Codex Marchalianus (right)

The prevailing type of book-hand during what in papyrology is called the Byzantine period, that is, roughly from AD 300 to 650, is known as the biblical hand. It went back to at least the end of the 2nd century and had had originally no special connection with Christian literature. In manuscripts, whether vellum or paper, of the 4th century found in Egypt are met other forms of script, particularly a sloping, rather inelegant hand derived from the literary hand of the 3rd century, which persisted to at least the 5th century; but the three great early codices of the Bible are all written in uncials of the biblical type. In the Vaticanus, placed in the 4th century, the characteristics of the hand are least strongly marked; the letters have the forms characteristic of the type but without the heavy appearance of later manuscripts, and the general impression is one of greater roundness. In the Sinaiticus, which is not much later, the letters are larger and more heavily made; and in the Alexandrinus (5th century) a later development is seen, with emphatic distinction of thick and thin strokes. By the 6th century, alike in vellum and in papyrus manuscripts, the heaviness had become very marked, though the hand still retained, in its best examples, a handsome appearance; but after this it steadily deteriorated, becoming ever more mechanical and artificial. The thick strokes grew heavier; the cross strokes of T and Θ and the base of Δ were furnished with drooping spurs. The hand, which is often singularly ugly, passed through various modifications, now sloping, now upright, though it is not certain that these variations were really successive rather than concurrent. A different type of uncials, derived from the Chancery hand and seen in two papyrus examples of the Festal letters despatched annually by the Patriarch of Alexandria, was occasionally used, the best known example being the Codex Marchalianus (6th or 7th century). A combination of this hand with the other type is also known.

Minuscule hand

The uncial hand lingered on, mainly for liturgical manuscripts, where a large and easily legible script was serviceable, as late as the 12th century, but in ordinary used it had long been superseded by a new type of hand, the minuscule, which originated in the 8th century, as an adaptation to literary purposes of the second of the types of Byzantine cursive mentioned above. A first attempt at a calligraphic use of this hand, seen in one or two manuscripts of the 8th or early 9th century,[16] in which it slopes to the right and has a narrow, angular appearance, did not find favour, but by the end of the 9th century a more ornamental type, from which modern Greek script descended, was already established. It has been suggested that it was evolved in the Monastery of Stoudios at Constantinople.[17] In its earliest examples it is upright and exact but lacks flexibility; accents are small, breathings square in formation, and in general only such ligatures are used as involve no change in the shape of letters. The single forms have a general resemblance (with considerable differences in detail) both to the minuscule cursive of late papyri, and to those used in modern Greek type; uncial forms were avoided.

In the course of the 10th century the hand, without losing its beauty and exactness, gained in freedom. Its finest period was from the 9th to the 12th century,[according to whom?] after which it rapidly declined. The development was marked by a tendency

  1. to the intrusion, in growing quantity, of uncial forms which good scribes could fit into the line without disturbing the unity of style but which, in less expert hands, had a disintegrating effect;
  2. to the disproportionate enlargement of single letters, especially at the beginnings and ends of lines;
  3. to ligatures, often very fantastic, which quite changed the forms of letters;
  4. to the enlargement of accents, breathings at the same time acquiring the modern rounded form.

But from the first there were several styles, varying from the formal, regular hands characteristic of service books to the informal style, marked by numerous abbreviations, used in manuscripts intended only for a scholar's private use. The more formal hands were exceedingly conservative, and there are few classes of script more difficult to date than the Greek minuscule of this class. In the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries a sloping hand, less dignified than the upright, formal type, but often very handsome, was especially used for manuscripts of the classics.

Hands of the 11th century are marked in general (though there are exceptions) by a certain grace and delicacy, exact but easy; those of the 12th by a broad, bold sweep and an increasing freedom, which readily admits uncial forms, ligatures and enlarged letters but has not lost the sense of style and decorative effect. In the 13th and still more in the 14th centuries there was a steady decline; the less formal hands lost their beauty and exactness, becoming ever more disorderly and chaotic in their effect, while formal style imitated the precision of an earlier period without attaining its freedom and naturalness, and often appears singularly lifeless. In the 15th century, especially in the West, where Greek scribes were in request to produce manuscripts of the classical authors, there was a revival, and several manuscripts of this period, though markedly inferior to those of the 11th and 12th centuries, are by no means without beauty.

Accents, punctuation, and division of words

In the book-hand of early papyri, neither accents nor breathings were employed. Their use was established by the beginning of the Roman period, but was sporadic in papyri, where they were used as an aid to understanding, and therefore more frequently in poetry than prose, and in lyrical oftener than in other verse. In the cursive of papyri they are practically unknown, as are marks of punctuation. Punctuation was effected in early papyri, literary and documentary, by spaces, reinforced in the book-hand by the paragraphos, a horizontal stroke under the beginning of the line. The coronis, a more elaborate form of this, marked the beginning of lyrics or the principal sections of a longer work. Punctuation marks, the comma, the high, low and middle points, were established in the book-hand by the Roman period; in early Ptolemaic papyri, a double point (:) is found.

In vellum and paper manuscripts, punctuation marks and accents were regularly used from at least the 8th century, though with some differences from modern practice. At no period down to the invention of printing did Greek scribes consistently separate words. The book-hand of papyri aimed at an unbroken succession of letters, except for distinction of sections; in cursive hands, especially where abbreviations were numerous, some tendency to separate words may be recognised, but in reality it was phrases or groups of letters rather than words which were divided. In the later minuscule word-division is much commoner but never became systematic, accents and breathings serving of themselves to indicate the proper division.[11]

See also:


The art of writing in India is a feature that developed gradually, as in other areas of the world, by going through the stages of pictographic, ideographic and transitional phases of the phonetic script, which in turn developed into syllabic and alphabetic scripts. In the subcontinent, three scripts like Indus, Kharoṣṭhī and Brāhmī became prevalent. In addition, Greek and Arabic scripts were also added to the Indian context after their penetration in the early centuries of the common era (CE). The origin and interaction among these scripts is a matter of constant debate. The decipherment and subsequent development of Indus script is also a matter for continuous research and discussion. After an elapse of a few centuries the Kharoṣṭhī script became obsolete; the Greek script in India went through a similar fate and disappeared. But the Brāhmī and Arabic scripts endured for a much longer period. Moreover, there was a change and development in the Brāhmī script which may be traced in time and space through the Maurya, Kuṣāṇa, Gupta and early medieval periods. The present day Nāgarī script is nothing but the developed form of Brāhmī. The Brāhmī is also the mother script of many existing scripts. Legends and inscriptions in Brāhmī are engraved upon leather, wood, terracotta, ivory, stone, copper, bronze, silver and gold. Arabic got an important place, particularly in the royalty, during the medieval period and it provides rich material for history writing.

Most of the available inscriptions and manuscripts written in the above scripts—in languages like Prākrita, Pāḷi, Sanskrit (Saṁsakrita), Apabhraṃśa, Tamil and Persian—have been read and exploited for history writing, but numerous inscriptions preserved in different museums still remain undeciphered for lack of competent palaeographic Indologists, as there is a gradual decline in the subcontinent of such disciplines as palaeography, epigraphy and numismatics. The discipline of ancient Indian scripts and the languages they are written needs new scholars who, by adopting traditional palaeographic methods and modern technology, may decipher, study and transcribe the various types of epigraphs and legends still extant today.[18]

The language of the earliest written records, that is, the Edicts of Ashoka, is Prakrit. Besides Prakrit, the Ashokan edicts are also written in Greek and Aramaic. Moreover, all the edicts of Ashoka engraved in the Kharoshthi and Brahmi scripts are in the Prakrit language: thus, originally the language employed in the inscriptions was Prakrit, with Sanskrit adopted at a later stage. Past the period of the Maurya Empire, the use of Prakrit continued in inscriptions for a few more centuries. In north India, Prakrit was replaced by Sanskrit by the end of 3rd century, while this change took place about a century later in south India. Some of the inscriptions though written in Prakrit, were influenced by Sanskrit and vice versa. The epigraphs of the Kushana kings are found in a mixture of Prakrit and Sanskrit, while the Mathura inscriptions of the time of Sodasa, belonging to the first quarter of the 1st century, contain verses in classical Sanskrit. From the 4th century onwards, the Guptas came to power and made Sanskrit flourish by supporting it in language and literature.

In western India and also in some regions of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, Prakrit was used till the 4th century, mostly in the Buddhist writings though in a few contemporary records of the Ikshvakus of Nagarjunakonda, Sanskrit was applied. The inscription of Yajna Sri Satakarni (2nd century) from Amaravati is considered to be the earliest so far. The earlier writings (4th century) of Salankayanas of the Telugu region are in Prakrit, while their later records (belonging to the 5th century) are written in Sanskrit. In the Kannada speaking area, inscriptions belonging to later Satavahanas and Chutus were written in Prakrit. From the 4th century onwards, with the rise of the Guptas, Sanskrit became the predominant language of India and continued to be employed in texts and inscriptions of all parts of India along with the regional languages in the subsequent centuries. The copper-plate charters of the Pallavas, the Cholas and the Pandyas documents are written in both Sanskrit and Tamil. Kannada is used in texts dating from about the 5th century and the Halmidi inscription is considered to be the earliest epigraph written in the Kannada language. Inscriptions in Telugu began to appear from the 6th or 7th century. Malayalam made its beginning in writings from the 15th century onwards.[19]

North India

In north India, the Brahmi script was used over a vast area; however, Ashokan inscriptions are also found using Kharoshthi, Aramaic and Greek scripts. With the advent of the Saka-Kshatrapas and the Kushanas as political powers in north India, the writing system underwent a definite change due to the use of new writing tools and techniques. Further development of the Brahmi script and perceivable changes in its evolutionary trend can be discerned during the Gupta period: in fact, the Gupta script is considered to be the successor of the Kushana script in north India.

From the 6th to about the 10th century of the common era, the inscriptions in north India were written in a script variously named, e.g., Siddhamatrika and Kutila ("Rañjanā script"). From the 8th century, Siddhamatrika developed into the Śāradā script in Kashmir and Punjab, into Proto-Bengali or Gaudi in Bengal and Orissa, and into Nagari in other parts of north India. Nāgarī script was used widely in northern India from the 10th century onwards. The use of Nandinagari, a variant of Nagari script, is mostly confined to the Karnataka region.

In central India, mostly in Madhya Pradesh, the inscriptions of the Vakatakas, and the kings of Sarabhapura and Kosala were written in what are known as "box-headed" and "nail-headed" characters. It may be noted that the early Kadambas of Karnataka also employed "nail-headed" characters in some of their inscriptions. During the 3rd–4th century, the script used in the inscriptions of Ikshvakus of Nagarjunakonda developed a unique style of letter-forms with elongated verticals and artistic flourishes, which did not continue after their rule.[19]

South India

The earliest attested form of writing in South India is represented by inscriptions found in caves, associated with the Chalukya and Chera dynasties. These are written in variants of what is known as the Cave character, and their script differs from the Northern version in being more angular. Most of the modern scripts of South India have evolved from this script, with the exception of Vatteluttu, the exact origins of which are unknown, and Nandinagari, which is a variant of Devanagari that developed due to later Northern influence. In south India from the 7th century of the common era onwards, a number of inscriptions belonging to the dynasties of Pallava, Chola and Pandya are found. These records are written in three different scripts known as Tamil, Vattezhuttu and Grantha scripts, the last variety being used to write Sanskrit inscriptions. In the Kerala region, the Vattezhuttu script developed into a still more cursive script called Kolezhuthu during the 14th and 15th centuries. At the same time, the modern Malayalam script developed out of the Grantha script. The early form of the Telugu-Kannada script is found in the inscriptions of the early Kadambas of Banavasi and the early Chalukyas of Badami in the west, and Salankayana and the early Eastern Chalukyas in the east who ruled the Kannada and Telugu speaking areas respectively, during the 4th to 7th centuries.


Attention should be drawn at the outset to certain fundamental definitions and principles of the science. The original characters of an alphabet are modified by the material and the implements used. When stone and chisel are discarded for papyrus and reed-pen, the hand encounters less resistance and moves more rapidly. This leads to changes in the size and position of the letters, and then to the joining of letters, and, consequently, to altered shapes. We are thus confronted at an early date with quite distinct types. The majuscule style of writing, based on two parallel lines, ADPL, is opposed to the minuscule, based on a system of four lines, with letters of unequal height, adpl. Another classification, according to the care taken in forming the letters, distinguishes between the set book-hand and the cursive script. The difference in this case is determined by the subject matter of the text; the writing used for books (scriptura libraria) is in all periods quite distinct from that used for letters and documents (epistolaris, diplomatica). While the set book-hand, in majuscule or minuscule, shows a tendency to stabilise the forms of the letters, the cursive, often carelessly written, is continually changing in the course of years and according to the preferences of the writers.

This being granted, a summary survey of the morphological history of the Latin alphabet shows the zenith of its modifications at once, for its history is divided into two very unequal periods, the first dominated by majuscule and the second by minuscule writing.[20]


Jean Mabillon, a French Benedictine monk, scholar and antiquary, whose work De re diplomatica was published in 1681, is widely regarded as the founder of the twin disciplines of palaeography and diplomatics. However, the actual term "palaeography" was coined (in Latin) by Bernard de Montfaucon, a Benedictine monk, in the title of his Palaeographia Graeca (1708), which remained a standard work in the specific field of Greek palaeography for more than a century.[21] With their establishment of paleography, Mabillon and his fellow Benedictines were responding to the Jesuit Daniel Papebroch, who doubted the authenticity of some of the documents which the Benedictines offered as credentials for the authorisation of their monasteries.[22] In the 19th century such scholars as Wilhelm Wattenbach, Leopold Delisle and Ludwig Traube contributed greatly to making palaeography independent from diplomatic. In the 20th century, the 'New French School' of paleographers, especially Jean Mallon, gave a new direction to the study of scripts by stressing the importance of ductus (the shape and order of the strokes used to compose letters) in studying the historical development of scripts.[23]

Majuscule writing

Capital writing

The Latin alphabet first appears in the epigraphic type of majuscule writing, known as capitals. These characters from the main stem from which developed all the branches of Latin writing. On the oldest monuments (the inscriptiones bello Hannibalico antiquiores of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum = CIL), it is far from showing the orderly regularity of the later period. Side by side with upright and square characters are angular and sloping forms, sometimes very distorted, which seem to indicate the existence of an early cursive writing from which they would have been borrowed. Certain literary texts clearly allude to such a hand.[24] Later, the characters of the cursive type were progressively eliminated from formal inscriptions, and capital writing reached its perfection in the Augustan Age.

Epigraphists divide the numerous inscriptions of this period into two quite distinct classes: titulu, or formal inscriptions engraved on stone in elegant and regular capitals, and acta, or legal texts, documents, etc., generally engraved on bronze in cramped and careless capitals. Palaeography inherits both these types. Reproduced by scribes on papyrus or parchment, the elegant characters of the inscriptions become the square capitals of the manuscripts, and the actuaria, as the writing of the acta is called, becomes the rustic capital.

Of the many books written in square capitals, the éditions de luxe of ancient times, only a few fragments have survived, the most famous being pages from manuscripts of Virgil.[25] The finest examples of rustic capitals, the use of which is attested by papyri of the 1st century,[26] are to be found in manuscripts of Virgil[27] and Terence.[28] Neither of these forms of capital writing offers any difficulty in reading, except that no space is left between the words. Their dates are still uncertain, in spite of attempts to determine them by minute observation.[29]

The rustic capitals, more practical than the square forms, soon came into general use. This was the standard form of writing, so far as books are concerned, until the 5th century, when it was replaced by a new type, the uncial, which is discussed below.

Early cursive writing

While the set book-hand, in square or rustic capitals, was used for the copying of books, the writing of everyday life, letters and documents of all kinds, was in a cursive form, the oldest exampless of which are provided by the

Uncial writing

Although the characteristic forms of the uncial type appear to have their origin in the early cursive, The earliest uncial writing is easily distinguished by its simple and monumental character from the later hands, which become progressively stiff and affected.

See also:

Minuscule cursive writing

Early minuscule cursive

In the ancient cursive writing, from the 1st century onward, there are symptoms of transformation in the form of certain letters, the shape and proportions of which correspond more closely to the definition of minuscule writing than to that of majuscule. rare and irregular at first, they gradually become more numerous and more constant and by degrees supplant the majuscule forms, so that in the history of the Roman cursive there is no precise boundary between the majuscule and minuscule periods.

The oldest example of minuscule cursive writing that has been discovered is a letter on papyrus, found in Egypt, dating from the 4th century.[35] This marks a highly important date in the history of Latin writing, for with only one known exception, not yet adequately explained—two fragments of imperial rescripts of the 5th century[36] — the minuscule cursive was consequently the only scriptura epistolaris of the Roman world. The ensuing succession of documents[37] show a continuous improvement in this form of writing, characterised by the boldness of the strokes and by the elimination of the last lingering majuscule forms. The Ravenna deeds of the 5th and 6th centuries[38] exhibit this hand at its perfection.

At this period, the minuscule cursive made its appearance as a book hand, first as marginal notes, and later for the complete books themselves. The only difference between the book-hand and that used for documents is that the principal strokes are shorter and the characters thicker. This form of the hand is usually called semi-cursive.[20]

National hands

The fall of the Empire and the establishment of the barbarians within its former boundaries did not interrupt the use of the Roman minuscule cursive hand, which was adopted by the newcomers. But for gaps of over a century in the chronological series of documents which have been preserved, it would be possible to follow the evolution of the Roman cursive into the so-called "national hands", forms of minuscule writing which flourished after the barbarian invasions in Italy, France, Spain, England and Ireland, and which are still known as Lombardic, Merovingian, Visigothic, Anglo-Saxon and Irish. These names came into use at a time when the various national hands were believed to have been invented by the peoples who used them, but their connotation is merely geographical. Nevertheless, in spite of a close resemblance which betrays their common origin, these hands are specifically different, perhaps because the Roman cursive was developed by each nation in accordance with its artistic tradition.[39]

Lombardic writing

In Italy, after the close of the roman and Byzantine periods, the writing is known as Lombardic, a generic term which comprises several local varieties. These may be classified under four principal types: two for the scriptura epistolaris, the old Italian cursive and the papal chancery hand, or littera romana, and two for the libraria, the old Italian book-hand and Lombardic in the narrow sense, sometimes known as Beneventana on account of the fact that it flourished in the principality of Benevento.

The oldest preserved documents written in the old Italian cursive show all the essential characteristics of the Roman cursive of the 6th century.[40] In northern Italy, this hand began in the 9th century to be influenced by a minuscule book-hand which developed, as will be seen later, in the time of Charlemagne; under this influence it gradually disappeared, and ceased to exist in the course of the 12th century. In southern Italy, it persisted far on into the later Middle Ages.[41] The papal chancery hand, a variety of Lombardic peculiar to the vicinity of Rome and principally used in papal documents, is distinguished by the formation of the letters a, e, q, t. It is formal in appearance at first, but is gradually simplified, under the influence of the Carolingian minuscule, which finally prevailed in the bulls of Honorius II (1124-1130). The notaries public in Rome continued to use the papal chancery hand until the beginning of the 13th century. The old Italian book-hand is simply a semi-cursive of the type already described as in use in the 6th century. The principal examples are derived from scriptoria in northern Italy, where it was displaced by the Carolingian minuscule during the 9th century. In southern Italy, this hand persisted, developing into a calligraphic form of writing, and in the 10th century took on a very artistic angular appearance.[42] The Exultet rolls provide the finest examples.[according to whom?] In the 9th century, it was introduced in Dalmatia by the Benedictine monks and developed there, as in Apulia, on the basis of the archetype, culminating in a rounded Beneventana known as the Bari type.[43]


The offshoot of the Roman cursive which developed in Gaul under the first dynasty of kings is called Merovingian writing. It is represented by thirty-eight royal diplomas,[44] a number of private charters[45] and the authenticating documents of relics.[46]

Though less than a century intervenes between the Ravenna cursive and the oldest extant Merovingian document (AD 625), there is a great difference in appearance between the two writings. The facile flow of the former is replaced by a cramped style, in which the natural slope to the right gives way to an upright hand, and the letters, instead of being fully outlined, are compressed to such an extent that they modify the shape of other letters. Copyists of books used a cursive similar to that found in documents, except that the strokes are thicker, the forms more regular, and the heads and tails shorter.[47] The Merovingian cursive as used in books underwent simplification in some localities, undoubtedly through the influence of the minuscule book-hand of the period. The two principal centres of this reform were Luxeuil and Corbie.[48]


In Spain, after the Visigothic conquest, the Roman cursive gradually developed special characteristics. Some documents attributed to the 7th century display a transitional hand with straggling and rather uncouth forms.[49] The distinctive features of Visigothic writing, the most noticeable of which is certainly the q-shaped g, did not appear until later, in the book-hand. The book-hand became set at an early date. In the 8th century it appears as a sort of semi-cursive; the earliest example of certain date is ms lxxxix in the Capitular Library in Verona.[50] From the 9th century the calligraphic forms become broader and more rounded until the 11th century, when they become slender and al., Ewald and Loewe, Exempla, cit.; Burnam, Paleogr. iberica; Clark, Collectanea, cit.; Garcia Villada, Paleogr. española. The Visigothic minuscule appears in a cursive form in documents about the middle of the 9th century, and in the course of time grows more intricate and consequently less legible.[51] It soon came into competition with the Carolingian minuscule, which supplanted it as a result of the presence in Spain of French elements such as Cluniac monks and warriors engaged in the campaign against the Moors.[52]

The Irish and Anglo-Saxon hands, which were not directly derived from the Roman minuscule cursive, will be discussed in a separate sub-section below.

Set minuscule writing

One by one, the national minuscule cursive hands were replaced by a set minuscule hand which has already been mentioned and its origins may now be traced from the beginning.

Half-uncial writing

The early cursive was the medium in which the minuscule forms were gradually evolved from the corresponding majuscule forms. Minuscule writing was therefore cursive in its inception. As the minuscule letters made their appearance in the cursive writing of documents, they were adopted and given calligraphic form by the copyists of literary texts, so that the set minuscule alphabet was constituted gradually, letter by letter, following the development of the minuscule cursive. Just as some documents written in the early cursive show a mixture of majuscule and minuscule forms, so certain literary papyri of the 3rd century,[53] and inscriptions on stone of the 4th century[54] yield examples of a mixed set hand, with minuscule forms side by side with capital and uncial letters. The number of minuscule forms increases steadily in texts written in the mixed hand, and especially in marginal notes, until by the end of the 5th century the majuscule forms have almost entirely disappeared in some manuscripts. This quasi-minuscule writing, known as the "half-uncial"[55] thus derives from a long line of mixed hands which, in a synoptic chart of Latin scripts, would appear close to the oldest librariae, and between them and the epistolaris (cursive), from which its characteristic forms were successively derived. It had a considerable influence on the continental scriptura libraria of the 7th and 8th centuries.

Irish and Anglo-Saxon writing

The half-uncial hand was introduced in Ireland along with Latin culture in the 5th century by priests and laymen from Gaul, fleeing before the barbarian invasions. It was adopted there to the exclusion of the cursive, and soon took on a distinct character. There are two well established classes of Irish writing as early as the 7th century: a large round half-uncial hand, in which certain majuscule forms frequently appear, and a pointed hand, which becomes more cursive and more genuinely minuscule. The latter developed out of the former.[56] One of the distinguishing marks of manuscripts of Irish origin is to be found in the initial letters, which are ornamented by interlacing, animal forms, or a frame of red dots. The most certain evidence, however, is provided by the system of abbreviations and by the combined square and cuneiform appearance of the minuscule at the height of its development.[57] The two types of Irish writing were introduced in the north of Great Britain by the monks, and were soon adopted by the Anglo-Saxons, being so exactly copied that it is sometimes difficult to determine the origin of an example. Gradually, however, the Anglo-Saxon writing developed a distinct style, and even local types,[58] which were superseded after the Norman conquest by the Carolingian minuscule. Through St Columba and his followers, Irish writing spread to the continent, and manuscripts were written in the Irish hand in the monasteries of Bobbio Abbey and St Gall during the 7th and 8th centuries.


James J. John points out that the disappearance of imperial authority around the end of the 5th century in most of the Latin-speaking half of the Roman Empire does not entail the disappearance of the Latin scripts, but rather introduced conditions that would allow the various provinces of the West gradually to drift apart in their writing habits, a process that began around the 7th century.[59]

Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great, d. 604) was influential in the spread of Christianity to Britain and also sent Queens Theodelinde and Brunhilda, as well as Spanish bishops, copies of manuscripts. Furthermore, he sent the Roman monk Augustine of Canterbury to Britain on a missionary journey, on which Augustine may have brought manuscripts. Although Italy's dominance as a centre of manuscript production began to decline, especially after the Gothic War (535–554) and the invasions by the Lombards, its manuscripts—and more important, the scripts in which they were written—were distributed across Europe.[60]

From the 6th through the 8th centuries, a number of so-called 'national hands' were developed throughout the Latin-speaking areas of the former Roman Empire. By the late 6th century Irish scribes had begun transforming Roman scripts into Insular minuscule and majuscule scripts. A series of transformations, for book purposes, of the cursive documentary script that had grown out of the later Roman cursive would get under way in France by the mid-7th century. In Spain half-uncial and cursive would both be transformed into a new script, the Visigothic minuscule, no later than the early 8th century.[61]

Carolingian minuscule

Beginning in the 8th century, as

Epistolaris Librariæ
Minuscule cursive Capitals
Half-uncial Rustic uncial
and half-uncial

Controversy turns on the question whether the Carolingian minuscule is the primitive minuscule as modified by the influence of the cursive or a cursive based on the primitive minuscule. Its place of origin is also uncertain: Rome, the Palatine school, Tours, Reims, Metz, St Denis and Corbie have been suggested, but no agreement has been reached.[62] In any case, the appearance of the new hand is a turning point in the history of culture. So far as Latin writing is concerned, it marks the dawn of modern times.[63]

Gothic minuscule

In the 12th century, Carolingian minuscule underwent a change in its appearance and adopted bold and broken Gothic letter-forms. This style remained predominant, with some regional variants, until the 15th century, when the Renaissance humanistic scripts revived a version of Carolingian minuscule. It then spread from the Italian Renaissance all over Europe.

Rise of modern writing

These humanistic scripts are the base for the antiqua and the handwriting forms in western and southern Europe. In Germany and Austria, the Kurrentschrift was rooted in the cursive handwriting of the later Middle Ages. With the name of the calligrapher Ludwig Sütterlin, this handwriting counterpart to the blackletter typefaces was abolished by Hitler in 1941. After World War II, it was taught as an alternative script in some areas until the 1970s; it is no longer taught. Secretary hand is an informal business hand of the Renaissance.


There are undeniable points of contact between architecture and palaeography, and in both it is possible to distinguish a Romanesque and a Gothic period. The creative effort which began in the post-Carolingian period culminated at the beginning of the 12th century in a calligraphy and an architecture which, though still somewhat awkward, showed unmistakable signs of power and experience, and at the end of that century and in the first half of the 13th both arts reached their climax and made their boldest flights. The topography of later medieval writing is still being studied; national varieties can, of course, be identified but the problem of distinguishing features becomes complicated as a result of the development of international relations, and the migration of clerks from one end of Europe to the other. During the later centuries of the Middle Ages the Gothic minuscule continued to improve within the restricted circle of de luxe editions and ceremonial documents. In common use, it degenerated into a cursive which became more and more intricate, full of superfluous strokes and complicated by abbreviations. In the first quarter of the 15th century an innovation took place which exercised a decisive influence on the evolution of writing in Europe. The Italian humanists were struck by the eminent legibility of the manuscripts, written in the improved Carolingian minuscule of the 10th and 11th centuries, in which they discovered the works of ancient authors, and carefully imitated the old writing. Their example was followed by many copyists. The papal chancery adopted the new fashion for some purposes, and thus contributed to its diffusion throughout Christendom. The printers played a still more significant part in establishing this form of writing by using it, from the year 1465, as the basis for their types. The humanistic minuscule soon gave rise to a sloping cursive hand, known as the Italian, which was also taken up by printers in search of novelty and thus became the italic type. In consequence, the Italian hand became widely used, and in the 16th century began to compete with the Gothic cursive. In the 17th century, writing masters were divided between the two schools, and there was in addition a whole series of compromises. The Gothic characters gradually disappeared, except a few that survived in Germany. The Italian became universally used, brought to perfection in more recent times by English calligraphers.[20]

See also


Further reading

Western palaeography

  • Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 1989. (Translation by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín and David Ganz of: Paläographie des römischen Altertums und des abendländischen Mittelalters. (Grundlagen der Germanistik 24) Erich Schmidt Verlag 1986.)
  • E. A. Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores: A Palaeographical Guide to Latin Manuscripts Prior to the Ninth Century, Clarendon Press, 1972.
  • Parkes, M. B. English Cursive Bookhands, 1250-1500. (Oxford Palaeographical Handbooks.) Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969
  • Jacques Stiennon, Paléographie du Moyen-Âge, 3e édition Armand Colin 1999
  • Sir Clarendon Press, 1912.

Indian palaeography

Digital palaeography

  • Malte Rehbein, Patrick Sahle, Torsten Schaßan (eds.): Codicology and Palaeography in the Digital Age. BoD, Norderstedt 2009, ISBN 3-8370-9842-7
  • Franz Fischer, Christiane Fritze, Georg Vogeler (eds.): Codicology and Palaeography in the Digital Age 2. BoD, Norderstedt 2010, ISBN 978-3-8423-5032-8

External links

  • 'Manual of Latin Paleography' (A comprehensive PDF file containing 77 pages profusely illustrated, August 2008).
  • 'Palaeography'. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911.
  • National Archives (UK)
  • A comprehensive survey of all the important aspects of medieval palaeography.
  • (German) A scholarly maintained web directory on palaeography.
  • Another scholarly maintained web directory on palaeography (200 links with critical comments, in French).
  • Comprehensive bibliography (1,200 detailed references with critical comments in French).
  • Online Tuition in the Palaeography of Scottish Documents 1500-1750
  • An introduction to Greek and Latin palaeography by Thompson, Edward Maunde – Outdated (published 1912) but good and useful illustrated handbook, available as facsimile.
  • Free palaeographical fonts
  • Self-correcting medieval palaeography exercises (13th and 14th century)
  • 12th to 17th century manuscripts originating from Europe and the Middle East, Center for Digital Initiatives, University of Vermont Libraries
  • Collection of online exercises for the transcription of a variety of scripts, from 8th to 15th century

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.