Punctuation in Visigothic script manuscripts

Have you noticed those strange dots that are not always in the place they should? What are they? Here you will find out.

This week I decided to continue the list of main posts proposed for the site by writing about the punctuation system used by Visigothic script scribes. Not an easy topic to write about, or to read about, but I am sure that it will be useful.

(not) Following the rules

The punctuation system used in early and high Medieval Latin manuscripts essentially follows the Greek system based on the use of positurae – that is dots – to indicate the different parts of speech. If you are familiar with medieval manuscripts, both codices and charters, you must have seen these dots before, more often halfway up the body of the letters.

The interpretation of these signs as for their modern equivalence is not always easy since, as happened with the script and other manuscript features, it was the scribe who decided what signs to use and the meaning each of them should have. In other words, there was a basic normative system to indicate the different pauses used in speech. To mark them was crucial bearing in mind that the texts were read aloud, and thus it was very useful for the reader to be reminded of, basically, where to breathe. However, although it must be thought the scribes were taught to follow the traditional rules of punctuation, depending on how well were they trained, their cultural context and experience, the design and use of the dots varied.

One cannot be always sure of the type of pause the scribe meant to write, of that correspondence between the type of dot and its meaning, although what we can do, and in fact have done, is to list the designs of the signs themselves, leaving for a careful experienced reading to consider and interpret the value of the punctuation in a modern edition of the text.

Basic types of punctuation signs

Traditional scholarship has given different names to the dots used to mark pauses depending on their position in relation to the baseline of the text. Thus, these dots can be called: 

  • distinctio, when they are placed at the top of the text line; 
  • subdistinctio, for those placed at the bottom;
  • and media distinctio, for those in an intermediate position within the text line.

It has also been attributed to each of these basic three types a modern equivalence. Hence:

  • the distinctio seems to mark the end of a part of speech with complete sense equivalent to a sentence, thus corresponding to a period (longer pause);
  • the subdistinctio splits different elements of a sentence, consistent with a comma (small pause);
  • while the media distinctio or distinctio media seems to be a rhetorical punctuation allowing the reader to pause before completing the reading of a portion of text with complete sense, equivalent to a semicolon or colon.

But it is not as easy as that.

Punctuation in Visigothic script

Since the late eighth century, and therefore also in Visigothic script manuscripts, both codices and charters, as a result of a change in the methods of reading, this system of punctuation diversifies, developing multiple signs for which a modern equivalence is not always easy to find. Taking a quick look at the corpus of Visigothic script charters I work with, these are the most frequent signs used:


The first and second images correspond to a subdistinctio and to a distinctio mediaBoth are used very frequently, the second one also by some scribes to split the syllables of a word. Their modern correspondence will be a comma and a rhetorical pause as expected (minor pause). The problem comes with all the other signs.

subdistinctio or media distinctio with a diagonal or S-like stroke above (that will be a punctus elevatus) more likely has the modern equivalent of a slightly heavier mark than a comma, although for some texts and some scribes we will understand it as a regular period.

The same modern meaning could be that of the next three images; a media distinctio or punctus followed by a stroke, a distinctio plus a comma or punctus versusand a colon, that may correspond to a heavy comma, a colon, a semicolon or just to a period (thus, major pause). Finally, the last four images – colon plus S-like stroke or a comma on one side or above –, often followed by an uppercase letter, do tend to correspond to a long pause, our period.

In my experience, when the scribe used a punctuation mark comprising a colon plus a distinctio media arranged as a triangle he was marking a new paragraph and not just a regular period, for which he will more likely use a punctus versus (our semicolon) or a colon. Of course, there were also scribes who used just media distinctio for both minor and major pauses.

So, these are some brief notes about the punctuation system used by Visigothic script scribes. It is always confusing to work with punctuation in these type of manuscript sources because of the dissimilarities with our punctuation signs and because each scribe tends to use their own group of signs with, often, their own value. However, some scribes used very distinctive signs of punctuation that could help identify them in other manuscript sources, being thus their study meaningful from a paleographical point of view – besides their significance for editing purposes.

Some useful references:

  • B. Bischoff, Paleografia latina. Antichità e medioevo, Padova 1992, 241.
  • A. Millares Carlo, Tratado de Paleografía Española, Madrid 1932, 396.
  • M.B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West, Berkeley-Los Angeles 1993.
  • J. Vezin, “La pounctuation du VIIIe au XIIe siècle”, in Mise en page et mise en texte du livre manuscrit, Paris 1990, 439-441.
  • J. Vezin, “Le libre et la lectura dans le monde latin pendant le haut Moyen Âge”, in Actas de las Ias Jornadas de Historia del Libro y de la Lectura (Barcelona, 4-5 mayo 2006), Barcelona 2008, 27-48.

by A. Castro

[edited 12/07/2018]

Go to Top
I agree

This site uses cookies to store information on your computer. These cookies are necessary so that some of the functionalities of the website are available to you, and others help us to improve for they give us an idea of ​​how the site is used. Cookies Policy.