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Carolingian Manuscripts: Paleography

Section 5: Codicological Features of the Carolingian Page

The influence of minim-height and line length:
As we noted earlier in this lesson, the small minim-height of Caroline Minuscule, combined with the tendency to leave ample space between lines, contributes to the sense of spaciousness and unclutteredness of the page. Space between lines is a useful legibility feature in manuscripts written in long lines (i.e., in wide, single columns), since it helps to prevent the reader’s eye from skipping a line. As a general rule in the history of Western scripts, single-column layouts tend to go hand in hand with smaller minim heights and more space between lines. This is a feature to keep an eye on as Caroline Minuscule begins to evolve into Gothic Textualis in the 12th century.

From late antiquity through the Carolingian period, ruling was done in dry-point or hard-point — that is, with a stylus that made a furrow in the parchment, rather than with a pencil or pen that left colored marks on the page. As a result, the ruling pattern is not visible except on close inspection, so the ruling pattern does not interfere with the generally plain and open appearance of the page. Carolingian ruling can be very difficult to detect in even high-resolution digital images, unless the page has been photographed in raking light.

If you look very closely at a Carolingian manuscript page and are able to see the ruling, you will see that the first line of writing on each page sits above the first ruled line. Zoom and scroll to the top of the page and you can just make out the way the writing sits atop the line incised in the parchment at the top of the left column in this 9th-century manuscript of the Bible from Tours:

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 75, p. 521. (


This is another feature to watch out for, as its disappearance is one of the signs of the end of Caroline Minuscule.

This is a later Carolingian manuscript (11th C.) and its ruling pattern is more elaborate, but note that the dry-point ruling means that the ruling pattern does not interfere with the look of the page as a whole. If you zoom in, you can see the dry-point ruling clearly. If you zoom out, you can see that the luxury in this manuscript of the Gospels is expressed not only through judicious use of gold leaf and color, but through ample empty parchment.

Walters Art Museum, W.7, f. 10r, © 2011 Walters Art Museum, used under a CC BY-SA license.


In the next unit, we will see how changing proportions in the script and changing aesthetics of the page gradually transform the look of manuscripts between the 11th and 13th centuries.

If you read Latin, go to the Caroline Minuscule Transcription lesson to practice transcribing Caroline Minuscule. Otherwise, go directly to the Gothic Textualis Paleography lesson.