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Uncial is a majuscule script commonly used from the 3rd to 8th centuries AD by Latin and Greek scribes. From the 8th century to the 13th century the script was more often used as a display script in headings and titles.
Early uncial script most likely developed from late Roman cursive. Early forms are characterized by broad single stroke letters using simple round forms taking advantage of the new parchment and vellum surfaces, as opposed to the angular, multiple stroke letters which are more suited for rougher surfaces, such as papyrus. In the oldest examples of uncial, such as the De bellis macedonicis manuscript in the British Library, all of the letters are disconnected from one another, and word separation is typically not used. Word separation, however, is characteristic of later uncial usage.
As the script evolved over the centuries, the characters became more complex. Specifically, around AD 600, flourishes and exaggerations of the basic strokes began to appear in more manuscripts. Ascenders and descenders were the first major alterations, followed by twists of the tool in the basic stroke and overlapping. By the time the more compact minuscule scripts arose circa AD 800, some of the evolved uncial styles formed the basis for these simplified, smaller scripts. Uncial was still used, particularly for copies of the Bible, tapering off until around the 10th century. There are over 500 surviving copies of uncial script, by far the largest number prior to the Carolingian Renaissance.
In general, there are some common features of uncial script:
- m, n, and u are relatively broad; m is formed with curved strokes (although a straight first stroke may indicate an early script), and n is written as N to distinguish it from r and s.
- f, i, p, s, t and relatively narrow.
- e is formed with a curved stroke, and its arm (or hasta) does not connect with the top curve; the height of the arm can also indicate the age of the script (written in a high position, the script is probably early, while an arm written closer to the middle of the curve may indicate a later script).
- l has a small base, not extending to the right to connect with the next letter.
- r has a long, curved shoulder, often connecting with the next letter.
- s resembles (and is the ancestor of) the "long s"; in uncial it looks more like r than f.
In later uncial scripts, the letters are sometimes drawn haphazardly; for example, double-l runs together at the baseline, bows (for example in b, p, r) do not entirely curve in to touch their stems, and the script is generally not written as cleanly as previously.
- African (i.e. Roman North African) uncial is more angular than other forms of uncial. In particular, the bow of the letter a is particularly sharp and pointed.
- Byzantine uncial has two unique features: "b-d uncial" uses forms of b and d which are closer to half-uncial (see below), and was in use in the 4th and 5th centuries; "b-r" uncial, in use in the 5th and 6th centuries, has a form of b that is twice as large as the other letters, and an r with a bow resting on the baseline and the stem extending below the baseline.
- Italian uncial has round letters (c, e, o, etc) with flatter tops, an a with a sharp bow (as in African uncial), an almost horizontal rather than vertical stem in d, and forked finials (i.e., serifs in some letters such as f, l, t, and s).
- Insular uncial (not to be confused with the separate insular script) generally has definite word separation, and accent marks over stressed syllables, probably because English and Irish scribes did not speak a language descended from Latin. They also use scribal abbreviations not found in other uncial forms, use wedge-shaped finials, connect i with m or h (when at the end of a word), and decorate the script with animals and dots.
- French (that is, Merovingian) uncial uses thin descenders (in g, p, etc), an x with lines that cross higher than the middle, and a d with a curled stem (somewhat resembling an apple), and there are many decorations of fish, trees, and birds.
Origin of the word
There is some doubt about the exact meaning of the word. Uncial itself probably comes from St. Jerome's preface to the Book of Job, where it is found in the form uncialibus, but it is possible that this is a misreading of inicialibus, and Jerome may have been referring to the larger initial letters found at the beginning of paragraphs. If the correct reading is uncialibus, it may mean that the letters occupied one-twelfth of a line of a manuscript, or perhaps that the ink used to write the letters cost an ounce of gold, or that they were decorated with gold and silver that either cost or weighed an ounce.
The term uncial in the sense of describing this script was first used by Jean Mabillon in the early 18th century. Thereafter his definition was refined by Scipione Maffei , who used to refer to this script as distinct from Roman square capitals.
The word, uncial, is also sometimes used to refer to manuscripts that have been scribed in uncial, especially when differentiating from those which have been penned with minuscule. Some of the most noteworthy Greek uncials are:
The Petropolitanus is considered by some to contain optimum uncial style. It is also an example of how large the characters were getting.
Modern calligraphy usually teach a form of evolved Latin based uncial hand that would probably be best compared to the later, 7th to 10th century examples, though admittedly, the variations in Latin uncial are much wider and less rigid than Greek. Modern uncial has borrowed heavily from some of the conventions found in more cursive scripts, using flourishes, variable width strokes, and on occasion, even center axis tilt.
In a way comparable to the continued widespread use of the blackletter typefaces for written German until well into the 20th century, versions of uncial were almost always used for typography in Gaelic languages (most notably Irish and Scottish Gaelic) until approximately the 1950s. The script is still widely used in this way for titles of documents, inscriptions on monuments and other 'official' uses.
Half-uncial or semi-uncial
The term half-uncial or semi-uncial was first used in the mid-18th century by René Prosper Tassin and Charles François Toustain, and despite its common use and understanding, it is not a very accurate name - it is not really derived from regular uncial, but it does look similar and shares many of its features; sometimes, especially when both were developing, the two scripts were used simultaneously in a mixed-uncial script.
Like uncial, half-uncial derived from Roman cursive. It was first used around the 3rd century and remained in use until the end of the 8th century. The early forms of half-uncial were used for pagan authors and Roman legal writing, while in the 6th century the script came to be used in Africa and Europe (but not as often in insular centres) to transcribe Christian texts.
Some general forms of half-uncial letters are:
- a is usually round, sometimes with a slightly open top
- b and d have vertical stems, identical to the modern letters
- g has a flat top, no bow, and a curved descender (somewhat resembling the number 5)
- t has a curved shaft
- n, r, and s are similar to their uncial counterparts (with the same differences compared to modern letters)
Half-uncial was brought to Ireland in the 5th century, and was then carried to England. There, it was used up to the 8th century, and developed into the insular script after the 8th century.
- Gaelic alphabet
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