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Christian Late Antiquity: Paleography

Section 1: Introduction and Historical Overview


In this lesson, we look at the two dominant book scripts of late antiquity, concentrating on the period from about the 4th century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, to the 8th century, when the Roman Empire had fallen in the West. At that time, the successor communities and kingdoms within its former territory and on the edges of the old Empire were beginning to establish their own, localized book cultures.

These scripts are Uncial and Half-Uncial.

Uncial and Half-Uncial were of enormous importance in the later development of Latin script, because it was in these scripts that the post-Roman world and its neighbors received Christian texts: the Bible, liturgical texts, and the works of the Fathers of the Church.

Click the images below to explore these two scripts before we discuss them in detail.


© The British Library Board, Harley 1775, f. 193r.


St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1395, p. 25. (www.e‑ )


UNCIAL is a majuscule script used as the main text script of very high-grade books between the 5th and 8th centuries, and also as a display script throughout the Middle Ages thereafter. (A display script is used for titles, chapter headings, and the like, to distinguish them from the main text script of the manuscript.)

Uncial is characterized by a generous, rounded aspect. Uncial is characteristically used in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages for manuscripts of the Bible. You can think of Uncial as being to Christian books what Square and Rustic Capitals were to manuscripts of Vergil in the same period: a special script for very special texts. However, there are over 500 surviving Uncial manuscripts, whereas only a handful of manuscripts in ancient capitals survive.

HALF-UNCIAL is a minuscule script used in books of all kinds from the 2nd to the 5th centuries. Half-Uncial emerged from Roman documentary cursive scripts in areas where Roman administrators worked and was thus the common book script of the post-Roman world. It is the immediate ancestor of the scripts of the early Middle Ages (Insular minuscule, Caroline minuscule) and is recognizably the ancestor of our modern lower-case alphabet.

Despite its widespread use and unparalleled influence, significantly fewer Half-Uncial manuscripts survive than Uncial ones. This is in part because books in Half-Uncial were, on average, less precious and more intensively used than the ultra-high-grade books written entirely in Uncials.

Take a closer look at manuscripts in the two scripts. Explore the two images and note similarities and differences. Pay attention to what makes Half-Uncial minuscule and Uncial majuscule. Are there letters in the Half-Uncial manuscript that you recognize from our modern lower-case alphabet? What do you see that looks unfamiliar?

Half-Uncial, Italy, early 5th century

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1395, p. 25. (www.e‑ )

Uncial, Italy, late 6th century

© The British Library Board, Harley 1775, f. 193r.

A note on nomenclature: Despite what their names would suggest, Half-Uncial is not a cut-down or small-scale version of Uncial. In fact, Half-Uncial emerges a bit earlier than Uncial. Both names were applied in the 17th century by early paleographers, on somewhat doubtful grounds.

The term "Uncial" was first used as a modern term for a particular ancient script by Jean Mabillon in his De re diplomatica (1681). Mabillon took the term from Jerome's preface to his translation of Job, where Jerome says, "Let those who want them have ancient books written in gold or silver on purple parchment or burdened, rather than written, with uncialibus..." The meaning of uncialibus is uncertain, but the best guess is something like "letters an inch high." Mabillon associated the large letters of luxury ancient Christian books with Jerome's remarks, even though the script we now call Uncial postdates Jerome's lifetime.

"Half-Uncial," meanwhile, is a term invented by René-Prosper Tassin and Charles-François Toustain in their Nouveau traité de diplomatique (1750-65). They thought Half-Uncial looked like a cut-down version of Uncial and named it accordingly. Paleographers today know that Half-Uncial did not develop from Uncial. It emerged earlier than Uncial and is an independent development of Later Roman Cursive.