Skip to main content

Insular Manuscripts: Paleography

Section 2: Insular Half-Uncial

 

This is the script used in the great Insular Bible manuscripts made in areas of Irish cultural influence especially in the 7th and 8th centuries, including the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells. Insular Half-Uncial is also called Insular majuscule.

The Lindisfarne Gospels, 1st quarter of 8th century

© The British Library Board, Cotton Nero D IV, f. 34r.

 

The main text script is Insular Half-Uncial, with Anglo-Saxon Minuscule of a later period used for the Old English glosses between the lines.

 

Aspect

Insular Half-Uncial can be understood as Half-Uncial inflated to a luxury-grade majuscule script with substantial influence from Uncial. Its aspect is, accordingly, round and spacious in the manner of Uncial, although the letters intrude more into each other's space than is typical of Uncial, so the script does not quite have the lateral spaciousness of Uncial.

 

Characteristic letterforms

There are two groups of characteristic letterforms in Insular Half-Uncial:

  1. Distinctive Insular versions of Half-Uncial letters, particularly an f whose hasta sits on the baseline, and an r whose shoulder bends all the way over like the right-hand part of a lower-case n. The Insular r is very liable to confusion with p and n for the modern reader. Together with the Half-Uncial g, these letters are also used in all varieties of Insular minuscule.
  2. Uncial letterforms used in alternation with the dominant Half-Uncial forms of the script. These include most notably the round Uncial forms d and s alternating with the upright d and tall s of Half-Uncial, and the majuscule R alternating with the Insular r.

Details from the Lindisfarne Gospels illustrate these forms:

This line from the Lindisfarne Gospels shows the Insular f with low hasta, Uncial d, s, and R, as well as a Half-Uncial d at the end:

line from manuscript page from The British Library, 700 CE finiens decursum ad

In this detail, there is a round Uncial s at the beginning and a tall, Half-Uncial s at the end, in ligature with u. An Uncial R in ordine contrasts with the n-shaped r in primus:

line from manuscript page from The British Library sicut in ordine primus

This detail shows the Half-Uncial/Insular g and a as well as the use of two different styles of N/n in the same word:

line from manuscript page from The British Library generationem

These details also show clearly how the predominantly Half-Uncial letterforms have been treated as a majuscule script, in which the letters are overwhelmingly the same height as each other, contained between two imaginary lines.