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     Uncialis were fully developed by Latin scholars in North Africa by the fourth century, although most possibly this writing style was first discovered by the Greeks, and it was an adaptation of the original round shaped writing to the Latin alphabet. The word "Uncial" comes from the Latin word "Uncia" (inch), and was named thus because those letters were written between two guidelines that were one unica (the Roman inch in height) apart. Those letters were more simply, freely drawn, rounder than the Rusticalis and their design was clearer.
The curves reduced the number of strokes needed for designing many letterforms, and the number of angular joints, which have a tendency to close up with ink-was significantly reduced. The nib was virtually horizontal, becoming less so over time. Certain letters in the uncial style threatened to develop ascenders (strokes rising above the top guideline) or descenders (strokes dropping below the baseline). Those were added to differentiate between similar shapes, or sometimes from sheer exuberance. Therefore, they were more efficient to rapid writing and more space economic than earlier square, or rustic capitals.
     The use of Uncialis became very popular during the Roman Empire, mainly within the region of Great Constantinos, for it became the official writing form for all the government papers. This was a political move to further intone the separation of the new Christian empire from the old Pagan one. Unicialis served as the official Church writing until the 8th century.
     Half uncials or semi-uncial (small or "lowercase" letterforms) were a step further towards the minuscule letter. Four guidelines were used, and strokes instead of two. Those allowed soaring above and sinking below the two principal lines, creating true ascenders and descenders. The pen was held flatly horizontal to the baseline, which gave the forms a strong vertical axis. Half-uncials were easy to write and had increased legibility because the visual differentiation between letters was improved. In fact, Half-Uncials were the first "official" change from uppercase to lowercase, and were used mostly in minor manuscripts and church letters during the 6th and 7th century.
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Uncials from the Gospel of Saint Matthew, eighth century A.D.
Half-uncials, sixth century A.D. This specimen was written in a monastery in southern Italy
Chart showing majuscule and cursive forms of Roman alphabet in use in early Christian era (Harold Johnston, Latin Manuscripts, Chicago, 1897)
© 2004 Natalia Rifai