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Visigothic and Beneventan: Paleography

Section 4: Beneventan Script


Initial four lines from the Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, ca. 1075-80 CE. This manuscript is in a form specific to the Beneventan region, a roll containing the text of the Easter Proclamation, which is sung at the Easter Vigil. The red marks above the text are neums, a musical notation.

first four lines of manuscript from the British library, written in Beneventan Script with red marks above the black text
© The British Library Board, Add. 30337, f. 8r, ll. 1-4.


The other distinctive script of southern Europe is Beneventan, which was developed and perfected at the Abbey of Monte Cassino, the birthplace of Benedictine monasticism. (The name “Beneventan” comes from Beneventum, the territory around Monte Cassino.) Because of the immense prestige of Monte Cassino as St. Benedict’s own monastery, the use of the Beneventan script spread throughout southern Italy and across the Adriatic to Dalmatia.

The Beneventan script emerges in the 8th century, around the same time as Visigothic. Examples have been found as late as the 16th century. The “period of perfection” of the script is the 11th century, and we illustrate the characteristics of the script from an 11th-century manuscript from Monte Cassino.

Beneventan is a highly formal, canonical script. Scribes trained in the script use a wide variety of ligatures, including many also seen in Visigothic, but in Beneventan there are many more of them, and they are used according to a strict system specific to Beneventan.

In what follows, we introduce the main identifying characteristic of Beneventan, the “broken minim” and the look of Beneventan ligatures, which will help you identify the script when you see it.

Recognizing Beneventan

The Broken Minim

The most distinctive and important characteristic of Beneventan is the so-called “broken minim.” The basic vertical stroke that is the building block of letters in any script is, in Beneventan, made up of two short, wide diagonal strokes meeting at a point in the middle.

Before we look at examples of the broken minim, let's review what minims look like in Textualis.


Latin in numeris in Gothic Textualis script in numeris
All rights reserved. Image provided by HMML.

This is from Cologne, Erzbischöfliche Diözesan- und Dombibliothek, MS 149, fol. 50r, column b, which we looked at in the last lesson. Textualis, especially in its formata (carefully-composed, highly-calligraphic) form, is noted for its angularity. If you look carefully at the detail above, you can see how that angularity comes about. Each minim — the upright strokes of i n u m e and r — starts with an angled approach stroke coming from the upper left, and finishes with either a separately-applied lozenge-shaped stroke at the bottom, or a stroke angled down and to the right with a hairstroke up and to the right. Those angles, plus the fact that the minims are made precisely vertical and parallel to one another, identify this as Textualis and make it feel like a script of straight lines with very few curves.

At first glance, Beneventan can seem similarly angular (and is definitely similarly regular), but if we get in close, we can see that the angularity results from a different ductus.


two Latin words in Beneventan script  cum omni
Detail © The British Library Board, Add. 30337, f. 8r, l. 13.

In this detail, from the Beneventan Exultet Roll shown at the head of this section, you can see that every letter that in Textualis would be made up of vertical minims (with added strokes at head and foot), here made up of two diagonal strokes. In cum omni above, u m n and i are each composed of two flag-like strokes that touch at a point at mid-minim. This is the Beneventan “broken minim.”

Now compare that broken minim to a less-formal Textualis. As we saw in the last lesson, less-formal versions of Textualis do not have the extreme angularity of Cologne manuscript 149, discussed above. But a less-formal Textualis will still have a regular pattern of parallel minims and a consistent rhythm of feet — and not have broken minims. Compare this detail of the Bethune Breviary, with which we worked in the last unit, to Beneventan:


one Latin word in Textualis script omnes
Detail from HMML, Bethune Breviary, MS 2, f. 7ra, l. 9.
Used under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license.



two Latin words in Beneventan script cum omni
Detail © The British Library Board, Add. 30337, f. 8r, l. 13.


In the Textualis example, each minim (as in the letters n and m) has a hairline or wedge-shaped approach stroke and a hairline finishing stroke, but the body of the minim is made with one continuous stroke — in this case, slightly curved. In the Beneventan example, each minim is “broken” in the middle — formed with two distinct strokes that meet each other at a point.



The other thing that makes Beneventan recognizable is the effect of obligatory ligatures on the script’s aspect. (By “obligatory,” we mean that a scribe trained in Beneventan will always make these ligatures, with the result that this is a constant feature of the script.) The letters e, f, g, r, and t all have connecting strokes that reach out and join the following letter at minim-height. Even if you can't decipher the ligatures, the visual effect is distinctive. A series of letters all joined with horizontal strokes at minim-height can make it look like a line has been drawn through the word.

For example, this word is eterna. The two es, the t, and the r (with pointy top and descender) have their middle strokes extended out to the right to touch the next letter. The cumulative effect is a line at minim-height across the first half of the word.


Latin word in Beneventan script eterna
Detail © The British Library Board, Add. 30337, f. 8r, l. 16.


Here is a similar effect in the word antistite:

Latin word in Beneventan script  antistite
Detail © The British Library Board, Add. 30337, f. 8r, l. 10.


In addition to the ligatures that join letters with horizontal strokes at minim-height, Beneventan also uses a variety of ligatures with i in which the i is long and curvy like a j. Beneventan has a different set of rules from Visigothic about when the j-like i is used. In antistite, above, you can see two ligatures with t joined to j-like i, which in Beneventan represents the hard ti sound. In imperatoris nostri below, there are two examples of the pointy-topped Beneventan r joined to a curvy, flourishy i that swoops below the baseline.

two Latin words in Beneventan script imperatoris nostri
Detail © The British Library Board, Add. 30337, f. 8r, l. 12.


Go back up to the larger image of this manuscript at the head of this section and explore. Can you find more broken minims, pointy-topped rs, j-style is, and runs of horizontal ligatures?


Are you ready to try recognizing Beneventan? Click ahead to try a quick exercise.