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 . 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?
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 here, part 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?
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.
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.
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?
 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)]