Beneventan Script

The Origin of the Name “Beneventan”

The name “Beneventan” script derives from the fact that its major centers of writing were within the duchy of Benevento, in Southern Italy: Monte Cassino, Bari and obviously, Benevento itself. The monastery of Monte Cassino was extremely influential due to the fact that it was founded by St. Benedict, and through this influence, it helped spreading the Beneventan Script in Benedictine scriptoria as far as Dalmatia, contemporary Croatia. It is important to know that, before the studies by palaeographer Elias Avery Lowe, the script was known as Longobarda or Longobardistica. This entire nomenclature attributed the paternity of this script to the Lombards, but it was thanks to the palaeographer Lowe that the script obtained the name with which it is known today: Beneventan.

(Fun fact, the great-grandson of Elias Avery Lowe is this man!)

Beneventan Script Sample
Beneventan Script sample from Monte Cassino.

(Very) Brief History of the Beneventan Script

The history of the script is particularly long: its origin can be traced back to the middle of the 8th century. It was used until the 13th century in Southern Italy and Dalmatia. After that it was still in use until the 15th century in smaller communities. In this length of time, the script didn’t change significantly, adding an extra difficulty to the dating of manuscripts written in this script.

The Exultet Rolls

Most of the surviving objects containing Beneventan script is composed of liturgical material and among these, there are the Exultet rolls. These were used in Latin liturgy on the eve of Easter, when the deacon dressed in white would sing the “Exultet” from it. The name derives from the incipit:

exultet iam angelica turba caelorum…

Translatable into:

the heavenly crowd of angels shout for joy…

Bari Exultet Roll
From the Bari Exultet Roll. On the left you can see the Deacon unraveling the scroll from the altar. At the bottom, you can see the script, written upside down. Notice also the particular full stop at the end of the text.

The Exultet roll would also contain decorations and illustrations that would appear to be drawn upside down when compared to the text. This is because the roll would have been unfurled by the priest, down from the altar in front of the audience attending the mass. Who was celebrating the mass would be able to read the text that was meant to be sung, while people who were unable to understand Latin could look at the images appearing from the scroll as it was unfurled in front of them.

Beneventan Palaeography

Beneventan script is fairly easy to recognize and the letters “a” and “t” are the easiest to identify once you know what they look like. They look quite similar to each other; the “a” resemble an “oc” when both letters are touching. The “t” is very similar, but the top stroke in the “c” of the “oc” shape, is flat. Other particular shapes of letters are the “e” and the “r”. A sample of the alphabet of this script will help to understand it better than any description:

Sample of Beneventan script
Sample of Beneventan script from Monte Cassino.

To these letterforms you have to add also the small galaxy of ligatures that were typical of this script: “et”, “ex”, “ri”, etc., and the many non standardized abbreviations. Typical of the Beneventan script was also the use of a standardized form of punctuation, such as the typical two points and comma that would indicate a contemporary full stop. All these details make the Beneventan script easy to identify, but fairly difficult to read, until you get used to it.

Further Reading

There is much, much more to know about this type of script and, thankfully, there is a wide selection of books from which you can venture deeper into the history of the Beneventan script:

Last edited: February 2017

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