Writing in cursive and minuscule script: polygraphism in medieval Galicia

Were the scribes able to differentiate the uses and traditions linked to each writing system? How many different writing systems were they able to use?

Some time ago I wrote about the different types of Visigothic script explaining that, according to the speed of the strokes the scribe used in writing, the script can be classified into two main typological variants: cursive and minuscule [1]. Visigothic cursive was, in general, drawn quickly, without lifting the pen, which leads to multiple ligatures and connections between letters and words [FIG. 2]. Visigothic minuscule, on the other hand, was written slowly, letter by letter, making it more readable and appealing to the eye. I also mentioned that the cursive variant was the one preferred, at least before the second half of the 11th century, to write charters – since cursive writing for legal issues meant a direct link with the writing practices of the late Roman empire – while minuscule can be found in almost all Visigothic script codices as a main graphic variant. In saying that, it can be thought that the scribe chose which typological variant he wanted – or was supposed – to use for the manuscript he was commissioned to write, be it a charter or a codex, thus implying the scribes were able to use both types. But, was that accurate? If we consider that all Visigothic script scribes were capable of writing in both minuscule and cursive, were thus able to differentiate the uses and traditions linked to both types of scripts too?


FIG. 1 Alphabets, Visigothic cursive and minuscule script.

To write in Visigothic minuscule or cursive script was not just a matter of writing quickly or slowly but rather of using two different scripts, two different ideal graphic models. Both “variants” are grouped under the name ‘Visigothic’ but they are, in fact, not the same script; they differ as for their genetic and chronological origin – in all likelihood even their geographical origin was not the same –, basic graphic characteristics and evolution, chronology… Cursive and minuscule alphabets are not the same [FIG. 1], nor are their abbreviation or even punctuation systems (see more here and here). Therefore, if we think a scribe had the ability to choose which type should be used for his manuscript, we must also think he must have learned and mastered two different writing systems.

Think about that for a moment. We are assuming the scribe was not only so skilled as to be able to write, say, calligraphic Visigothic cursive script, but that he was also capable of writing a beautiful codex in Visigothic minuscule, without mixing alphabets, or, even more significantly, abbreviation systems! (read about medieval abbreviation systems herepart 3)

There are substantial differences between the abbreviations used in minuscule and in cursive scripts. Not to confuse which set should he use really implied a profound understanding of the script. He must have been truly exceptional, and his training centre/school and master must have been highly remarkable too. So, how many scribes do you think were able to achieve that in the early medieval Iberian Peninsula?


FIG. 2 Basic ligatures, cursive variant.

Although not all the manuscripts that were written and copied throughout the medieval scriptoria of the Iberian Peninsula are extant, and plenty of them have no indication of who their material author was, giving the sources preserved and the textual information they provide, very few scribes were able to achieve such an accomplishment. Polygraphic scribes were scarce. It was uncommon for a scribe to use both Visigothic cursive and minuscule script, and even more unusual if he also used other coeval writing systems or alphabets that can be found in the myriad of cultures that was medieval Spain. The examples we can be sure about are so scarce that they can be counted on the fingers of one hand, or almost.


FIG. 3 Petrus. Samos, dated 1061 (© Madrid, Archivo Histórico Nacional, Sección Clero, Samos, carp. 1239, nº 13) and Tuy, dated 1071 (© Tuy, Archivo de la Catedral, 1/2).

For the Galician area, the one I am familiar with, with some 300 charters written in Visigothic script, I only know of some ten examples of polygraphic scribes we can be completely sure about since we have charters written by them in both cursive and minuscule scripts (or parts of charters: text in minuscule and the scribe’s signature in cursive). One was brought up a couple of weeks ago thanks to a colleague who, reading the last post about the signs used in charters for signatures, recalled seeing the same scribe’s sign I posted in another charter than the one I extracted the image from. That is Petrus [FIG. 3].

Bearing in mind how frequent the name Petrus was back then, and still is, he indeed needed to differentiate himself from other scribes named Petrus, developing his own distinctive sign as he did. We know of at least two charters written by this same Petrus, one with a donation to the monastery of Samos dated 1061, and the other, a royal charter to the see of Tuy dated 1071. Petrus was a well-trained and skilled scribe. Both charters were written in a very calligraphic script, the first in a neat Visigothic cursive and the second in the minuscule variant, with all its proper features and characteristics.

Could there have been more we are not aware of? Sure there were more, within the same Galician corpus. But how can we identify them when we have no examples of their polygraphism? Remember, cursive and minuscule are two different scripts and thus they cannot be graphically compared for recognising the same hand. Were all the skilled scribes, those of a higher cultural level, polygraphs? It could be; it makes no sense to think about scribes specialised in only cursive or minuscule. Can we assume that those scribes who wrote a perfectly calligraphic Visigothic cursive script with a few abbreviations or even letter forms from the minuscule variant (or vice versa) are telling us they knew and mastered both writing systems? Maybe they got distracted and forgot for a second what the correct form of the sign for the ending -um was. Or, are they just picturing a graphic environment in which both coeval systems were used and influenced one another? In other words, that they did not really graphically differentiate between both writing systems.


FIG. 4 Visigothic semi-cursive script | Lugo, Archivo de la Catedral, nº 26. © Ainoa Castro Correa.

What about the scribes who used the semi-cursive variant [FIG. 4] of Visigothic script? Were they polygraphic scribes or just the less accomplished ones who allowed the graphic influence to happen? The identification of the semi-cursive typological variant is intricate. It is not just a Visigothic cursive with some features from the minuscule one (what I call ‘semi-cursive’) or vice versa (what I call ‘semi-minuscule’), but a total mix of alphabets, abbreviation and punctuation systems. In my point of view, the semi-cursive should not be described as a typological variant, altogether with cursive and minuscule, but as a mirror of the graphic skills the scribes who used it had. To me, every time I come across an example of this script I think about a scribe who was not well trained in any variant although had some knowledge about both. A scribe that did not belong to a main production centre with a well-known school but to a small centre, maybe a small monastery or a parochial church –that is why for some scholars the semi-cursive is also called elemental script.

So, scribes writing in a calligraphic script could thus have been polygraphs, meaning, able to write in both cursive and minuscule, because they learned both writing systems in their high-level school, while uncultured scribes were not polygraphs but rather just poor scribes mixing graphic characteristics because of their cultural level? What was the process of learning to write in cursive and minuscule?

[1] I do not consider here elongate since it is not a different writing system but a type of cursive Visigothic script.

by A. Castro

[update: If you are interested in the topic of polygraphism, I have an article in press you might want to read: A. Castro Correa, “The regional study of Visigothic script: Visigothic script vs. Caroline minuscule in Galicia”, in ‘Change‘ in medieval and Renaissance scripts and manuscripts: proceedings of the 19th Colloquium of the Comité international de paléographie latine (Berlin, September 16-18, 2015), Turnhout (in press)]

[edited 12/07/2018]

5 Comments | Leave your comment

liz read

As a complete and utter novice in world of MSS (nearly a year since I became fascinated, trolling thru Brit Lib and other digitized MSS sites) and no comprehension of Latin, you might wonder why I steadily follow your posts…but I do! And I enjoy them, even when it takes a while to grasp the content. Thanks.



So many thanks! This site is intended for all those interested in manuscripts written in Visigothic script, neophytes and experts, so you are welcome. Do not be afraid to ask anything.
I should write more clearly, I know, and I try!


liz read

You write VERY clearly but your subject of course very esoteric…admire you for all the research and it must have been very exciting when someone else discovered the Petrus symbol. I do relate!


David Ganz

Wonderful for those of us who read Spanish with difficulty to have an account in English of Visigothic script. (Charles Upson Clark relied on French.) But I believe that all scribes of eary medieval manuscript books were polygraphic, the scripts you show are both more elaborate than the basic letter forms (Petrucci’s scritttura di base) they would have learned first, and very few books do not use some sort of capital to start a sentence, and some sort of script for headings. And when space is an issue they may change the grade of script. The issue of the differences between book scripts and charter scripts is also relevant. Can we recognise a scribe when he or she write two very different scripts on the same page, or different scripts in different places?



Thank you.

I do not think all scribes were polygraphic scribes. However, I do believe all calligraphic scribes (regardless of whether they wrote/copied charters or codices) were. In my opinion, I am inclined to believe those scribes whose script can be categorized as elemental, or rather, semi-cursive script speaking about Visigothic, seem to have been not good enough as to master one script, let alone two, and used thus a mixed one; their primary, not mastered, influenced by another. Calligraphic scribes, even if we only have examples of use of one typology, bearing in mind their graphic quality, should have been able to manage at least the two coeval scripts, cursive and minuscule Visigothic script until the 11th century, and more likely also Caroline minuscule from the late 11th onwards.
On the other hand, another topic would be the grades of script and how one considers them, depending on the scripts used, in relation to polygraphism. For example, in my point of view, the elongate cannot be considered another script since it is just cursive Visigothic with longer ascenders and descenders. There is no real change in alphabets besides this execution, nor in abbreviation or punctuation systems. Capitals were, for a middle ages’ scribe, another script. However, while Visigothic was taking shape, capitals were assimilated within both Visigothic alphabets, minuscule and cursive. The abbreviations using capitals that can be found in Visigothic mss follow the Visigothic script system. So, should we consider a scribe using capitals as polygraphic scribe even if both scripts were taught as one and the same? If the first grade of script used were a Half-Uncial, the scribe would have been indeed polygraphic since both scripts were not understood as the same.
I do think that, although it is not easy, the same scribe can be recognized even if he wrote using different scripts. Some ligatures and connections are used in both cursive and minuscule Visigothic and their ductus is difficult enough as to be relevant in comparing hands. Also, the linguistic analysis is fundamental here.

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.