From Rome to the Middle Ages

DocumentsEducational materials and outreachWriting and booksFrom Rome to the Middle Ages

The most likely theory is that the Greeks transmitted their form of writing to the Etruscans who inhabited the region known today as Tuscany. But the ‘Etruscan mystery’ still persists. It is assumed that the future Romans borrowed the Etruscan alphabet and adapted it to Latin at the time the Etruscan kings reigned in the Latium region (until the 4th century BC).

A Latin alphabet with 19 characters was created around the 3rd century BC. The letters X and Y were added in the 1st century BC during Cicero’s lifetime. Thanks to the power and influence of the Roman Empire, the alphabet spread rapidly. Today, Roman-letter writing is used to transcribe many languages.

The Romans, like the Greeks, first used capital (quadrata) letters for stone inscriptions, and a smaller cursive form when writing on other materials such as papyrus and wax tablets.

Over time, the form of writing changed. Writing in capitals was slow, and what was good for carving was not necessarily good for writing on papyrus or parchment. Although a form of joined cursive writing existed, it was not widely used. From the late Roman Empire to the late Middle Ages, straight angles were gradually replaced with curves. It was the rounded uncial letter from the Latin uncia (inch) that was used for books and finer works. Its size explains the name: uncia, or inch, is equal to one twelfth of a foot. The square capital letter was kept only for titles.

By the year 1000 AD this new form of writing had spread to all Latin-speaking Europe. During the Carolingian Renaissance writing was reformed and simplified. In 768, shortly after the beginning of Charlemagne’s reign, a new kind of script was born: the Caroline minuscule. It was a perfectly clear and beautiful character that would eventually be used throughout all of medieval Europe from the late 8th to the 11th century.

>  Arabic calligraphy

Hippocrate, De l’alimentation. Manuscrit latin de la première moitié du IXe siècle

Hippocrates, De victus ratione, Latin manuscript, first half of the 9th century