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Visigothic and Beneventan: Paleography

Section 1: Introduction

The last three lessons have traced the evolution of script in northwestern Europe — the British Isles and the areas of the Continent under the cultural influence of the Carolingian empire and its successors: modern France, the Low Countries, Germany, and northern Italy. That is a story of the emergence of regional and local scripts in the early Middle Ages; a consolidation over the 9th and 10th centuries with the spread of Caroline Minuscule; and the transformation of Caroline Minuscule into Textualis between the late 11th and the early 13th centuries.

In southern Europe — the Iberian peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal), southern Italy, and Dalmatia — the history of script is different in some respects. This lesson covers two distinctive scripts of southern Europe: Visigothic, the script of the Iberian peninsula; and Beneventan, the script of the Abbey of Monte Cassino and its region of influence (primarily southern Italy and Dalmatia, on the eastern shore of the Adriatic).

Visigothic Script, 10th century

© The British Library Board, Add. 11695, f. 194r.

Beneventan Script, 11th century

© The British Library Board, Add. 30337, f. 8r.

We are going backwards in time to discuss Visigothic and Beneventan. These are both scripts that emerged in the early Middle Ages. Their development broadly paralleled that of the Insular scripts and the pre-Caroline scripts of northern France. Both scripts developed in the heart of the former Roman world — Italy itself, south of Rome, for Beneventan, and Spain, one of the most ancient Roman provinces, for Visigothic.

These scripts emerge from an environment where books were written in Half-Uncial in late antiquity, and where the tradition of the Roman documentary scripts — Later Roman Cursive and its descendants — persisted after the end of the Roman empire. They thus share a minuscule alphabet with the other early medieval scripts that descend from Half-Uncial and Later Roman Cursive. Their alphabets are essentially those of Half-Uncial, with a repertory of ligatures that comes from Later Roman Cursive. As Visigothic and Beneventan were perfected and codified, they developed specialized uses of those ligatures, special varieties of the originally-Half-Uncial letterforms, and, in the case of Beneventan, an entirely distinctive ductus.

These are scripts with very long lifespans. They emerge in the 8th century or earlier. Visigothic lasts at least until the 13th century and Beneventan lasts till the end of the Middle Ages. Rather than tracing the whole history of these scripts and their varieties, the discussion in the sections that follow focuses on the key identifying characteristics of each script, with examples from the 10th and 11th centuries.