Early uncial script is likely to have developed from late Old 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 are 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.

National styles

Due to its extremely widespread use, in Byzantine, African, Italian, French, Spanish, and "insular" (Irish and English) centres, there were many slightly different styles in use:

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 Irish scribes did not speak a language descended from Latin. They also use specifically Insular scribal abbreviations not found in other uncial forms, use wedge-shaped finials, connect a slightly subscript "pendant i" with m or h (when at the end of a word), and decorate the script with animals and dots ("Insular dotting", often in groups of three).
  • 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.
  • Cyrillic manuscript developed from Greek uncial in the late ninth century (mostly replacing the Glagolitic alphabet), and was originally used to write the Old Church Slavonic liturgical language. The earlier form was called ustav (predominant in the 11–14th centuries), and later developed into semi-ustav script (or poluustav, 15–16th centuries.





Origin of the word

There is some doubt about the original 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 (though this makes little sense in the context), and Jerome may have been referring to the larger initial letters found at the beginning of paragraphs.

Habeant qui volunt veteres libros, vel in membranis purpureis auro argentoque descriptos, vel uncialibus ut vulgo aiunt litteris onera magis exarata quam codices.

"Let those who so desire have old books, or books written in gold and silver on purple parchment, or burdens {rather than books} written in uncial letters, as they are popularly called."


In classical Latin uncialis could mean both "inch-high" and "weighing an ounce", and it is possible that Jerome was punning on this; he may conceivably also have been playing with the other meaning of codex, "block of wood".

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.

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