14 March 2017

The question ‘what is Caroline minuscule?’ is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to answer. This is not least because it really contains an entire strata of questions. At the most basic level, when we ask ‘what is Caroline minuscule?’, we really mean ‘what are the letter-forms and history of the handwriting usually called Caroline minuscule?’. But we might also ask: ‘What are minuscule scripts? Why do we call this script ‘Caroline’? How do we classify scripts? Is it useful to know script systems, and how should they be used? How do we understand the evolution of scripts or letter-forms over time? How does letter-shape variation influence whether or not we call a script ‘Caroline minuscule’?’. These and other questions are hard to separate, for their answers depend on the history of palaeography as a discipline; this discipline, in turn, can seem complicated, contradictory and extremely technical – even esoteric; it is a discipline debated in several different languages with little consensus on terminology; furthermore, it continues to evolve, not only in its traditional form but also now in the digital sphere.

With all this in mind, the short answer is that Caroline minuscule is a book script that began to be used during the eighth century (precisely when, and what we can call ‘Caroline’ as opposed to ‘pre-Caroline’ minuscule, is still open to debate). It gradually replaced some of the regional scripts used in Europe until that point, and evolved over the course of time under the influence of other regional scripts. Its popularity was most likely due to the clarity of its letter shapes, which are easy to distinguish one from another and therefore make it easy to read the script. This meant that Caroline minuscule remained a pre-eminent script throughout the middle ages, and was used as the basis for the earliest forms of blackletter (movable type). It could, therefore, be considered the basis of our modern letter-shapes.

Runic alphabet with Caroline minuscule counterpart letters, written in the second half of the ninth century. Note the variety of the letter ‘g’: letter shape variation was possible not only across different scribes (‘hands’), but also in texts and books written by a single scribe. St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 270, p. 52.

The term ‘Caroline minuscule’ is very broad; it refers, according to Bernhard Bischoff in his seminal study of the development of Latin scripts, to ‘a situation that was reached as a result of related tendencies and changes’.1 This is probably the most specific possible definition of a very diverse script, within the context of the term ‘minuscule’, which refers to ‘a category of script in which certain letter shapes were constructed with ascenders and descenders.’2 Caroline minuscule was written differently by different scribes, in different centres, and at different times. It developed specific regional or local features in some places, but in others retained a more or less uniform appearance over hundreds of years.

The place and purpose of origin of Caroline minuscule are unclear. Some believe that it developed in some way from the ‘Maurdramnus’ minuscule at Corbie.3 Some see it as a general development that occurred simultaneously at various scriptoria.4 Others propose more specific points of origin, including the pre-Caroline minuscule used, among other places, at Charlemagne’s palace school5; a reworking of semi-uncial and semi-cursive scripts inspired by Alcuin while abbot at Tours6; or new Roman cursive.7

Caroline minuscule at the Abbey of Corbie

Corbie Abbey, which lies in the Somme valley in northern France, was founded around 660 by the Merovingian Queen Balthild. Its first monks came from Luxeuil Abbey in Burgundy, a monastery which had its own distinctive house style. One Corbie manuscript and a further set of manuscripts, also from Corbie, are of particular interest for the origins of Caroline minuscule.

The first manuscript is Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Preußischer Kulturbesitz, MS theol. lat. fol. 354 (CLA VIII.1067), written in a half-uncial script with insular features sometime after 750, during the abbacy of Leutchar (abbot before 769).8 On fols. 1v–2v, we find Caroline minuscule. In the CLA, Lowe calls it ‘a rather well-developed early Caroline minuscule, apparently antedating the Maurdramnus type’ (on Maurdramnus, see below). According to Lowe, a further inserted bifolium (fols. 48–49) in the same manuscript is written in a half-uncial ‘of Maurdramnus-type’; but Bischoff refutes the idea that this type of Caroline minuscule developed from half-uncial at all (see his Latin Palaeography, pp. 108–9, no. 110.)

Earliest Caroline minuscule? Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Preußischer Kulturbesitz, MS theol. lat. fol. 354, fol. 1v.

The second manuscript is an Old Testament extant in five volumes, which are held at the Bibliothèque municipale of Amiens (manuscripts 6, 7, 9, 11 and 12). Two folios of a sixth volume are in Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 13174 (fols. 136 and 138). There probably existed a further six or seven volumes. All these were copied at Corbie between 772 and 781, during the abbacy of Maurdramnus (Leutchar’s successor), and are collectively known as the Maurdramnus Bible. The script used (written with the pen held at right angles to the page, without ligatures, and therefore representing a rather formal calligraphic minuscule) has its own very particular character and is often known as Maurdramnus script.9 David Ganz has called it ‘probably the earliest datable specimen of Caroline minuscule’.10

Corbie was one of a very few centres in the eighth century that adapted a version of charter hand for use in books; this script became the Corbie ab-minuscule, which was written there alongside the Maurdramnus script. Another script, called the b-type, was practiced around the same time by the nuns at Chelles. Such early types of script contributed to the emergence of a minuscule ‘alphabet’ of letter-forms that were distinct from half-uncial, particularly in the forms of ‘g’ and ‘n’.11 These features may have contributed to the development of Caroline minuscule.

Further information

The above outline of Caroline minuscule is only a brief glimpse into a complex and fascinating subject. For more detailed studies and information, choose a work from one of the excellent bibliographies listed below. NSCM is working towards a more comprehensive overview of Caroline minuscule: see our survey of individual centres writing Caroline minuscule, A Partial Survey of Centres Writing Caroline Minuscule, c. 700–1000.

Beyond some of the major studies already mentioned in this post, the best way to find out more about Caroline minuscule is to read the available scholarship. Annotated palaeographical and codicological bibliographies are now easily accessible and offer an excellent resource (many are arranged by category, so they are easy to navigate). Among the most comprehensive of those available online are the French-language Thelème bibliographies from the University of the Sorbonne, which include lists of publications on archive research, codicology, diplomatics and the history of the book; and the bibliography of Leonard Boyle, which was originally published in print and is now being updated by Fabio Troncarelli of the University of Viterbo.12 In addition, an Italian-language annotated bibliography on the archaeology of the book has been published in print by Marilena Maniaci.13 The journals Scriptorium and L’année philologique publish a bibliography of codicology each year.

By Anna Dorofeeva


1. B. Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, trans. D. Ó Cróinin and D. Ganz (Cambridge, 1990), p. 108.

2. M.B. Parkes, Their Hands Before our Eyes: A Closer Look at Scribes. The Lyell Lectures Delivered in the University of Oxford, 1999 (Aldershot, 2008), p. 153.

3. A. Hessel, ‘Zur Entstehung der karolingischen Minuskel’, Archiv für Urkundenforschung 8 (1923), pp. 201–14; C. Higounet, La Création de I’ecriture Caroline: Problème de paléographie et de civilisation (Paris, 1958); P. Lauer, ‘La Réforme carolingienne de I’écriture latine et l’école calligraphique de Corbie’, Mémoires présentés par divers savants à I’Académie des inscriptions et belles lettres 13 (1924), pp. 417–40.

4. B. Bischoff, ‘Die karolingische Minuskel’, Karl der Große, Werk und Wirkung (exhibition catalogue, Aachen, 1965); D. Ganz, ‘The preconditions for Caroline minuscule’, Viator 18 (1987), pp. 23–44; H. Steinacker, ‘Zum Liber diurnus und zur Frage nach dem Ursprung der Frühminuskel’, Miscellanea Francesco Ehrle: Scritti di storia e paleografia in occasione dell’ottantesimo natalizio dell’e.mo Cardinale Francesco Ehrle. Paleografia e diplomatica, Studi e testi 4 (Rome, 1924), pp. 105–76.

5. A. Hessel, ‘Zur Entstehung der karolingischen Minuskel’; A. de Boüard, ‘La Question des origines de la minuscule Caroline’, Palaeographia Latina 4, ed. W.M. Lindsay (1925), pp. 71–82.

6. L. Delisle, ‘Mémoire sur l’école calligraphique de Tours au IXe siècle’, Mémoires de l’Académie des inscriptions & belles lettres 32 (1885), pp. 29–56; S. Morison, ‘Notes on the development of Latin script’, S. Morison, Selected Essays on the History of Letter-Forms in Manuscript and Print 1, ed. D. McKitterick (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 222–94.

7. G. Cencetti, ‘Postilla nuova a un problema paleografico vecchio: L’origine della minuscola Carolina’, Nuova Historia 7 (1955), pp. 9–32; T. Licht, ‘Die älteste karolingische Minuskel’, Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 47 (2012), pp. 337–46.

8. This codex is related to St Petersburg, Publichnaya Biblioteka, MS F.v.1.6 (CLA XI.1602).

9. For an introduction to the Berlin manuscript and the Maurdramnus style generally, see W.M. Lindsay, Palaeographia Latina 1 (St Andrews, 1922), pp. 63–6, and S. Morison, ‘Notes on the development of Latin script’.

10. D. Ganz, ‘The preconditions for Caroline minuscule’, p. 36.

11. B. Bischoff, Latin Palaeography, pp. 106–7.

12. L. Boyle, Medieval Latin Palaeography: A Bibliographical Introduction (Toronto, 1984; repr. with extensive supplement as Paleografia latina medievale. Introduzione bibliografica con supplemento 1982–1998 (Rome, 1999)).

13. M. Maniaci, Archeologia del manoscritto. Metodi, problemi, bibliografia recente (Rome, 2002).