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Christian Late Antiquity: Paleography

Section 2: Uncial

UNCIAL: ASPECT; COMPARISON TO SQUARE CAPITALS

You can see from the detail below that Uncial is a "chubby" script in aspect. Can you see what letters particularly give it that impression?

Uncial, Italy, last quarter of the 6th century

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

Several letters that are made in whole or in part of straight lines in the ancient capitals are made up of generous curved strokes in Uncial.

Compare this manuscript in Square Capitals that we looked at in the last lesson. What do Uncials and Square Capitals have in common? What are the differences?

Square Capitals, Italy, 4th or 5th century

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1394, p. 12. (www.e-codices.unifr.ch )

Uncial: Characteristic letterforms

Uncial uses a mix of letterforms that we would consider "upper case" — notably the B, N, R, and S — and others that we recognize from our lower-case alphabet — especially the d, e, h, m, and u. (The A is somewhere in between, with the upright, triangular shape of our upper-case A, but with a loop for the left leg that ultimately turns into a form that gives us our typographic lower-case a.) Nonetheless, we classify the script as a majuscule because the majority of letters are the same height — as if written between two imaginary lines. Just a few letters stick up a bit or hang down a bit.

extreme closeup detail of line from manuscript showing Uncial characteristic letterforms

extreme closeup detail number 2 of line from manuscript showing Uncial characteristic letterforms

extreme closeup detail number 3 of line from manuscript showing Uncial characteristic letterforms

extreme closeup detail number 4 of line from manuscript showing Uncial characteristic letterforms
© The British Library Board, London, British Library, MS Add. 89000.

To recognize Uncial when you see it in the future, remember to check for the rounded, lower-case style d with its ascender leaning over to the left, the lower-case-style e, and the very rounded m with two large bows.

Click on the images of other Uncial manuscripts below to explore the script in more detail.

Italy, last quarter of the 6th century

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

Italy, ca. 600

© Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 210, f. 4r.

Italy, ca. 600

The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, Auct. D. 2. 14, f. 130r.

England (Northumbria), 698

© The British Library Board, MS Add. 89000, f. 1r.