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PALAEOGRAPHY (Gr. aaXalbs, ancient, a...

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Originally appearing in Volume V20, Page 557 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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PALAEOGRAPHY (Gr. aaXalbs, ancient, and ypal6ew, to write), the science of ancient handwriting acquired from study of surviving examples. While epigraphy is the science which deals with inscriptions (q.v.) engraved on stone or metal or other enduring material as memorials for future ages, palaeography takes cognisance of writings of a literary, economic, or legal nature written generally with stile, reed or pen, on tablets, rolls or codices. The boundary, however, between the two sciences is not always to be exactly defined. The fact that an inscription occurs upon a hard material in a fixed position does not necessarily bring it under the head of epigraphy. Such specimens of writing as the graffiti or wall-scribblings of Pompeii and ancient Rome belong as much to the one science as to the other; for they neither occupy the position of inscriptions set up with special design as epigraphical monuments, nor are they the movable written documents with which we connect the idea of palaeography. But such exceptions only slightly affect the broad distinction just specified. The scope of this article is to trace the history of Greek and Latin palaeography from the earliest written documents in those languages which have survived. In Greek palaeography we have a subject which is self-contained. The Greek character, in its pure form, was used for one language only; but the universal study of that language throughout Europe and the wide diffusion of its literature have been the cause of the accumulation of Greek MSS. in every centre of learning. The field of Latin palaeography is much wider, for the Roman alphabet has made its way into every country of western Europe, and the study of its various developments and changes is essential for a proper understanding of the character which we write. Handwriting, like every other art, has its different phases of growth, perfection and decay. A particular form of writing is gradually developed, then takes a finished or calligraphic style and becomes the hand of its period, then deteriorates, breaks up and disappears, or only drags on an artificial existence, being meanwhile superseded by another style which, either developed from the older hand or introduced independently, runs the same course, and in its turn is displaced by a younger rival. Thus in the history of Greek writing we see the literary uncial hand passing from early forms into the calligraphic stage, and then driven out by the minuscule, which again goes through a series of important changes. In Latin, the literary capital and uncial hands give place to the smaller character; and this, after running its course and developing national characteristics in the different countries of the West, deteriorates and is superseded almost universally by the Italian hand of the Renaissance. Bearing in mind these natural changes, it is evident that a style of writing, once developed, is best at the period when it is in general use, and that the oldest examples of that period are the simplest, in which vigour and naturalness of handwriting are predominant. On the other hand, the fine execution of a MS. after the best period of the style has passed cannot conceal deterioration. The imitative nature of the calligraphy is detected both by the general impression on the eye, and by uncertainty and inconsistencies in the forms of letters. It is from a failure to keep in mind the natural laws of development and change that early dates, to which they have no title, have been given to imitative MSS.; and, on the other hand, even very ancient examples have been post-dated in an incredible manner. Down to the time of the introduction of printing, writing ran in two lines—the natural cursive, and the set bobk-hand which was evolved from it. Cursive writing was essential for the ordinary business of life. MSS. written in the set book-hand filled the place now occupied by printed books, the writing being regular, the lines generally kept even by ruling or other guides, and the texts provided with regular margins. The set book-hand disappeared before the printing press; cursive writing necessarily remains. In the study of handwriting it is difficult to exaggerate the great and enduring influence which the character of the material employed for receiving the script has had upon the formation of the written letters. The original use of clay by the Babylonians and Assyrians as their writing material was the primary cause of the wedge-shaped symbols which were produced by the natural process of puncturing so stiff and sluggish a substance. The clinging waxen surface of the tablets of the Greeks and Romans superinduced a broken and disconnected style of writing. The comparatively frail surface of papyrus called for a light touch and slenderly built characters. With the introduction of the smooth and hard-surfaced vellum, firmer and heavier letters, with marked contrasts of fine and thick strokes, became possible, and thence became the fashion. In the task which lies before us we shall have to deal mainly with MSS. written on the two very different materials, papyrus and vellum, and we shall find to how great an extent the general character and the detailed development of Greek and Latin writing, particularly for literary purposes, has been affected by the two materials. The history of the ancient papyrus roll and of its successor, the medieval vellum codex, and the particulars of the mechanical arrangement of texts and other details appertaining to the evolution of the written book are described in the article MANUSCRIPT. In the present article our attention is confined to the history of the script. The papyrus period of our subject, as regards literary works, ranges generally from the end of the 4th century B.C. to the 4th century of our era, when the papyrus roll as the vehicle for literature was superseded by the vellum codex. The vellum period extends from the 4th century to the 15th century, when the rise of the art of printing was the doom of the written book. Yet it must not be imagined that there is a hard and fast line separating the papyrus period from the vellum period. In the early centuries of our era there was a transitional period when the use of the two materials overlapped. The employment of vellum for literary purposes began tentatively quite at the beginning of that era; nor did the use of papyrus absolutely cease with the 4th century. But that century marks definitely the period when the change had become generally accepted. In the case of non-literary documents, written in cursive hands, the papyrus period covers a still wider field. These documents range from the 3rd century B.C. down to the 7th century, and a certain number of examples even extend into the 8th century. The survival of cursive papyrus documents in large numbers is due to the fact that they are chiefly written in Egypt, where papyrus was the common writing material and where climatic conditions ensured their preservation. On the other hand, early cursive documents on vellum are scarce, for it must he borne in mind that, even allowing for the loss of such documents attributable to the perishable nature of that material in the humid climates of Europe, papyrus and waxen tablets were also the usual writing materials of the Greeks and Romans. The importance of the survival of Greek cursive papyri to so late a period is very great, for it enables us to trace the development of the Greek literary minuscule handwriting of the 9th century in a direct line from the cursive script of the papyri centuries earlier.
End of Article: PALAEOGRAPHY (Gr. aaXalbs, ancient, and ypal6ew, to write)
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