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Basics: Latin Paleography

Section 2: Talking About Script; Describing Letterforms


Script vs. Hand: A script is a type or style of writing. A hand is the way an individual scribe writes that script. As one paleographer put it, a script is the model a scribe has in mind as he writes; a hand is what he actually does when he writes. Paleographers classify scripts according to formal and stylistic characteristics, following typologies developed by specialists in the field and relating those scripts to historical and art-historical trends.

Other meanings of “hand”: You will often see “hand” used to refer to one particular scribe who worked on a given manuscript, as in, “there are two hands in the Beowulf manuscript.” This means that scholars see different versions of the same script in one manuscript and conclude that more than one scribe worked on the manuscript. “Hand”, therefore, becomes a shorthand for the person who wrote that hand. Contrary to the description given above between script and hand, it is traditional to refer to scripts used primarily in books as “bookhands” and scripts used primarily in documents as “charter hands.”


Minim: A minim is a single upright stroke, equivalent to an i (without the dot) — the “minimal” component of letters in a given script.

Feet: The feet of letters are the bottoms of minims.

Bow: A bow is the rounded part of a letter like c, d, b.

Hasta: A hasta is a short horizontal stroke that sticks out sideways, like the middle stroke of E. (“Hasta” means “spear.”)

Minim-height Minim-height is the height of a minim in a given script, which is normally also the height of the majority of letters in that script. For example, all the letters in the word minim are minim-height. In the word example, only the l is taller than minim-height. When we read a script or typeface with which we are familiar, our eyes unconsciously focus at the top of minim-height for cues to distinguish one letter from another. Minim-height is equivalent to x-height in typography.

Baseline: The baseline is the notional line on which the feet of minims as well as most letters in a given script sit. (Note that the baseline may or may not coincide with an actual ruled line on the page.)

Ascender: An ascender is an upright stroke that sticks up above minim-height, as in an l, b, d, or h.

Descender: A descender is a vertical stroke that hangs down below the baseline, as in p and q.