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Basics: Latin Paleography

Section 3: Classes of Script; How Script Looks and How It Is Executed


Paleographers classify all scripts as either majuscule or minuscule.

The technical definitions of these terms are different from our “upper case” and “lower case”, which are terms derived from typography.

Majuscule script: A majuscule script is one in which all letters are written as if between two imaginary lines. That is, nothing sticks up above minim-height and nothing hangs down below the baseline. All letters are the same height. (There may be one or two letters with parts that poke up or down a tiny bit, but a script in which the overwhelming majority of letters fit between two notional lines is classified as a majuscule.) Here is an ancient example of a majuscule script:

Latin parchment manuscript page from Saint Gallen, 1394
St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1394, p. 12. (www.e‑

The script above, which we will study in the next unit, gives us our upper-case letters, but here we are concerned with why it qualifies as a majuscule script. Notice that, although F and L stick up slightly above minim-height and the tail of Q dips very slightly below the baseline, the overwhelming majority of letters fit between two notional lines. A glance at the page tells you that this is so.

Minuscule script: A minuscule script, by contrast, is one that has ascenders and descenders, like our lower-case alphabet. A minuscule script can be defined as a script written between four imaginary lines: most letters sit on the baseline and reach only up to minim-height, but ascenders on some letters reach up to an imaginary line above minim height, and descenders reach down to an imaginary line below the baseline. Here is a minuscule script:

manuscript page from St. Gall  116
St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 116, p. 3. (www.e‑


On this page, the top line is written in a majuscule script and the rest of the text is written in a minuscule script:

 manuscript page from St. Gall  152
St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 152, p. 3. (www.e‑


Aspect: A script's aspect is its general appearance. The vocabulary of aspect is highly subjective and not at all standardized. A script may be spiky, cramped, spacious, rounded, squiggly — you name it. Even though descriptions of aspect are highly personal, it is helpful to evaluate aspect when you encounter a new script. See how it appears to you, especially in comparison to other scripts. A sense of its overall “look” will help you identify that script in future. You should evaluate aspect when looking at a page of script as a whole, rather than when you are looking close up at individual letters and their parts.

Ductus: A script's ductus, by contrast, is a way of describing what the scribe did as he was forming the letters. The ductus consists of the number of strokes in a letter and the order of execution of those strokes. The concept of ductus may thus be used to describe how a letter o in one script may be made in a single, circular stroke of the pen, whereas in another it may be made of six individual angular strokes. We will not give a great deal of attention to ductus in this course, but it is a useful concept to bear in mind when you are more advanced in your work with manuscripts and you come to evaluate how the approaches of individual scribes to a script differ from one another, or how the use of different kinds of pens affects the execution of letters.

A note about the term cursive: We are familiar with the idea of cursive as meaning writing in which all the letters are joined together. That notion gets at the same general point as the technical definition of cursive in paleography. A cursive script is one that is made with comparatively few lifts of the pen.

That may or may not mean that the letters are joined to one another. An example of a cursive way of forming letters is the example just given, in which an o is made in a single stroke instead of six separate strokes. You will see paleographers refer to cursive scripts as having a “simplified ductus”, which just means that their letters are made of fewer separate strokes. Cursive scripts are, in general, less time-consuming for the scribe to write than non-cursive scripts, though some cursives are so elaborate that they must have been as time-consuming as non-cursives.

Paleographers have, over the centuries, tended to apply the term cursive to any script that appears hastily written. While this is not the technical definition of a cursive, it has led to the term “cursive” sticking to some scripts that we might not describe as cursive if we were planning a system of nomenclature from scratch. It is worth bearing in mind the technical definition of cursive while being prepared to learn the standard names for some scripts that have traditionally been known as “cursives.” We will encounter these at the very beginning and the very end of our course, in the units on Classical Antiquity and on Gothic Cursiva.

Ready to test your grasp of the terms for classes of script and parts of letters? Go on to a short set of review exercises.