Friday, April 1, 2011

Uncial Talk (2) - Brown & Lovett

Here are some short excerpts from "The Historical Source Book for Scribes" (U of T, 1999), by Michelle P. Brown, Patricia Lovett.  They give us a clear picture of the difference between simple Capital Letters, and the Uncial Script.

Capital Scripts (p. 21)

"Capital letters are the oldest to have been used in the Roman or Latin alphabet, which is still used in the West.  They evolved via Phoenician, Greek and Etruscan alphabets and were used by Romans from the 1st century BC onwards.  Square Capitals were probably the earliest, their angular form being governed by the chisel which worked them for monumental inscriptions (scriptura monumentalis).
... The effort required to write Square Capitals with a pen meant that they were rarely used for complete texts, although some rare examples of ostentatious early codices written in Square Capitals survive, notably a 4th century Italian copy of Virgil's Georgics (The Codex Augusteus, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. LAt. 3256).  However, ...they were frequently used in display scripts designed, with decorated initials, to mark important divisions in the text."

Virgil in Square Capitals (4th c.) 
Click to Enlarge: Backbutton to return

Uncials (p. 39)

Uncial is the most formal book script to have enjoyed any major degree of use.  Its rounded forms, which evolved during the 2nd to 4th centuries AD, were suited to the action of the pen and represented a fusion of capital letter forms and rapidly written variants with fewer strokes, which had become a script in themselves - Old Roman Cursive.   The term "Uncial" is attributed, apocryphally, to St. Jerome who is said to have criticised this de luxe script for being so ostentatious that it could appear to be an 'inch high' (uncia is the Latin for "inch"). 
Uncial was commissioned of professional scribes by the publishers of the later Roman Empire and was used for sacred texts by the bishops and clerics who filled the vacuum left by the civil service at its demise, from the 5th century onwards.   Its most influential patron was Pope Gregory the Great, instigator of missionary work amongst the 'barbarian' heirs to Roman rule in northern Europe.  Around 600 A.D. Gregory encouraged the clerical scribes of Rome to pen elegant uncial copies of Scripture and of works by the Church Fathers (including Gregory's own influential compositions).  These were designed to equip the expanding Church and to enhance the authority of this religion of the Word through the beauty and imposing character of its books.  
The symbols of faith, the Cross and the fish, began to adorn major letters and therein the process of integrating text and image through the decorated initial had its genesis, embodying Gregory's tenet that in images 'the illiterate read'.  This pronouncement was a major step in determining the future of book arts in the West.  
Idolatry was a significant preoccupation.  The Islamic response [post 622 A.D.] was to espouse sacred calligraphy and to prohibit figural representations in sacred contexts.   Byzantium was to be plunged into a lengthy period of iconoclasm during which images were actively destroyed, as they were around a millenium later during the English Civil War.  
In the West, Gregory's approval of the didactic use of images and decoration set the tone (although the question was sometimes reopened, especially in the Carolingian orbit).   This allowed the 'barbarian' peoples of northern Europe to lavish their strong sense of ornament and style, with all its accompanying connotations of power and prestige, on to the new medium of the book.   Only from such a heady brew of 'barbaric' and Mediterranean influences could manuscripts as stunning and innovative as the Book of Durrow, the Lindisfairne Gospels and the Book of Kells have been distilled.   

Book of Durrow 
Lindisfairne Gospels

Book of Kells: "Half-Uncial" Script

Book of Kells

The direct influence of the cautiously decorated uncial books produced in Gregory's Rome can be detected in the already more ambitious initials of the earliest Insular manuscripts to survive from Britain and Ireland, such as the Cathach  (or 'battler' of of Columcille (Dublin, Royal Irish Academy).  This is now thought to date around 630, but was for centuries thought to be the Psalter that St. Columba plagarised, earning the famous legal judgment of "to every cow its calf and to every book its copy" - the first statement of copyright.   The conflict which ensued led Columba to leave his beloved Ireland in voluntary exile for Christ (peregrinatio) and to establish a monastic family (paruchia) which was to comprise such important foundations as Iona and Lindisfairne.  Book production remained a core function of all such centres.  ...

Cathach of Columba

Cathach of Columba

Uncial continued in use in the cathedral cities and monasteries of early medieval Italy and Merovingian Gaul, often developing regional variant letter-forms, such as the Merovingian hooked 't' which can be so pronounced that it resembles an 'a'. "...


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