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Carolingian Manuscripts: Paleography

Section 1: Historical Orientation

Caroline Minuscule developed towards the end of the 8th century in conjunction with Charlemagne’s program to reform the liturgy and establish a correct and uniform text of the Bible. Several monasteries in the Carolingian realms of Northern France and Germany had begun developing scripts in the latter half of the 8th century that sought to bring some clarity and consistency to the welter of barely-legible scripts that had developed from late-Roman documentary scripts. Under the patronage of Charlemagne and the leadership of his circle of scholarly advisors, a consensus style of script emerged that was clear, legible, and relatively consistent — Caroline Minuscule.

In this manuscript the headings are in Square Capitals and Uncials and the main text is in Caroline Minuscule.

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 317, p. 9. (www.e‑codices.unifr.ch  

We can appreciate the innovation of Carolingian script and page layout if we compare a Carolingian manuscript like the one above to one from the decades just before the Carolingian reforms. During the first three quarters of the 8th century, a number of monastic houses, mostly in the northeast of France, developed book scripts from Merovingian chancery scripts, which were in turn derived from later Roman cursive. These manuscripts typically show some of the innovations that would help readers navigate a book, like capitals for headings and colored inks marking divisions of the text, but their scripts are extremely challenging. There is some word separation, but the lateral compression of the script and its many ligatures make it hard to discern separate word breaks. This 8th-century manuscript gives a sense of what the Carolingian reform of script was reacting to:

Pre-Caroline Minuscule from Northeast France

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 214, p. 17. (www.e‑codices.unifr.ch

Charlemagne’s circle of scholars included men from Italy who had access to libraries, like those of Monte Cassino and Verona, where ancient texts were still preserved that survived nowhere else in Europe. In the 780s, Alcuin of York arrived at Charlemagne’s court, bringing with him the fruits of a century of Insular development of aids to legibility in writing Latin. Alcuin and his fellow scholars worked intensively on establishing a better text of the Latin Bible as the basis for uniform liturgy and preaching. The Carolingian scholars also studied late-antique grammars and sought to regularize Latin usage. Caroline Minuscule reflects the goals of these studies and reforms: its legibility assisted in the accurate dissemination of the newly-corrected sacred texts, and its consistent letterforms and limited repertory of abbreviations accord with a linguistic ideal in which one sound was to be represented by one written form.

Caroline Minuscule was the dominant script of Europe in the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries, before giving way slowly to Gothic Textualis in the 12th — a transition we will study in the next unit. More than 7000 manuscripts in Caroline Minuscule survive today. Most of the texts of classical antiquity that we know today reached the modern period in Carolingian manuscripts. Caroline Minuscule was the model for Humanist Minuscule and, therefore, the ultimate source of our modern Roman lowercase alphabet.