Latin Christian Late Antiquity: Transcription


In the last Transcription lesson, you practiced transcribing a majuscule script without word separation (scriptio continua). You practiced using parentheses to indicate where you expanded an abbreviation by supplying letters the scribe omitted.


In this lesson, we continue working with manuscripts in scriptio continua, which was normal scribal practice until the 8th century (and in many places later than that). We work with both majuscule script (Uncial) and minuscule (Half-Uncial). In manuscripts in Uncial and Half-Uncial scripts, the letterforms usually do not present serious problems, though Half-Uncial has a few letterforms that are easily mistaken for each other. We will review these later in this lesson. If you become comfortable transcribing Half-Uncial manuscripts, you will be prepared to tackle the many medieval scripts that descend from Half-Uncial.


In this lesson, we also introduce new abbreviations, and new methods of indicating that a word is abbreviated. The abbreviations and styles of abbreviation we cover in this lesson are the most commonly-used ones for the whole of the Middle Ages (and for the rest of this course). It would be a good idea to memorize them. This lesson, and subsequent Transcription lessons, will include some quick drills on abbreviations in addition to the transcription exercises themselves, to help you consolidate your knowledge of the most common forms of abbreviation.

Abbreviations: Suspension of -m, suspension of -us in -bus endings

Among the few abbreviations used in high-grade late-antique manuscripts are the omission of word-final -m and the omission of -us in the -bus ending of the dative and ablative plural.


Omission of final -m after a vowel is indicated by the common mark of abbreviation, a horizontal line above the vowel that the -m would follow, like this: uerbu = uerbum. The common mark of abbreviation is also known as a titulus. Remember, when transcribing, we put in parentheses any letter that we are supplying but which the scribe omitted in abbreviation. So here, the m goes in parentheses, like this: uerbu(m)


Omission of -us after b is indicated by an apostrophe-like mark following the b, like this: b' So hominib' = hominibus. Again, since we are supplying the -us in expanding the abbreviation, we put the letters we are supplying in parentheses, like this: hominib(us)

Abbreviations: Nomina Sacra

The nomina sacra are a small set of standard abbreviations for names of the deity. These are abbreviations by contraction. The nomina sacra usually have a horizontal line over the whole abbreviation to mark it as such.


DS stands for deus. The final S changes when the word is inflected, so, for example DM = deum, DO = deo, and DI = dei.


DNS, on the other hand, stands for dominus. It, too, changes its last letter according to the requirements of inflection (DNI, DNO, DNM).


Be especially careful not to confuse DS and DNS. It may help to remember: DS = two letters standing for a two-syllable word; DNS = three letters standing for a three-syllable word.


IHS and XPS are nomina sacra for Jesus's name, with the added complication that they are mixed Greek abbreviations used to represent the Latin forms of the names. The IH in IHS are iota and eta. (Sometimes the S is written C, to represent the Greek sigma.) In XPS, X is chi, normally spelled CH in Latin, and P is the Greek letter rho. Despite the Greek letters, you should expand these abbreviations in Latin, as follows:


IHS = ie(su)s           XPS = chr(istu)s


Note that you do not put the e in iesus in parentheses when you expand, because it is present in the abbreviation's H (eta), and you do not put the h in christus in parentheses because ch together are represented by X in the abbreviation.


(Note: You do sometimes find medieval scribes spelling Jesus "ihesus", which probably arose from a misunderstanding of the IHS abbreviation. If your scribe consistently spells out ihesus with the h, then you may expand that scribe's IHS abbreviation with an h in it, too, but not otherwise!)


As with DS and DNS, IHS and XPS change their last letter according to the inflection of the word. Thus IHU is used for iesu (the form for all cases of iesus other than nominative), and we find XPI, XPO, XPM as needed.


The other two most common nomina sacra are those for the Holy Spirit: SPS SCS = spiritus sanctus. Both abbreviations also change their last letter for inflection, and you will of course find them used separately as well as together.

When you have digested all this, click through to try some practice exercises in expanding abbreviations.

Exercise 1

The Bodleian Libraries, Auct. D. 2. 14, f. 130r. Uncials, Italy, ca. 600.


Transcribe lines 3-15 in the second column of this page.

Remember to add modern word separation and expand abbreviations, but otherwise record exactly what the scribe wrote. Follow the manuscript's line breaks, but add a hyphen in brackets at line end if the scribe has split a word between two lines. You'll find two places in this passage where the scribe broke a word at line end.

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Exercise 2

BAV Pal. lat. 210, f. 4r. Augustine, De bono coniugali. Uncials, Italy, 6th C.


Transcribe lines 3-12.

Here's another Uncial manuscript, with a different layout. Even though he does not use spaces between words, this scribe uses large spaces to separate sentences or major sense-units, and emphasizes those breaks with larger letters. You may use capital letters to reproduce the scribe's litterae notabiliores.


There are four abbreviations in this passage: three suspensions of final -m or -us, and one nomen sacrum.


Here are a few more things to watch out for as you transcribe:

  • At the end of line 3, a letter is obscured in a fold of the parchment. It is an r.

  • At the end of line 6, the scribe seems to make a spelling mistake. Can you tell whether he's used the correct letter or not? Compare the way he makes the letter(s) in question in other places on the page.

  • Watch out for false word separations! Make sure you end up with complete Latin words that make sense in context.

Transcription Answer Key

3 et uerbum erat apud
4 d(eu)m;
5 et d(eu)s erat uerbum;
6 hoc erat in principio
7 apud d(eu)m;
8 omnia per ipsum fac(-)
9 ta sunt.´
10 et sine ipso factu(m)
11 est nihil;
12 quod factum est.´
13 in ipso uita erat;
14 et uita erat lux ho(-)
15 minum;

Exercise 3

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1395, p. 25. Fragments of Vulgate (Matthew). Half-Uncial. Northern Italy, ca. 410-420


Now it's time to try transcribing Half-Uncials. Transcribe lines 7-21 in the left column. (Do not transcribe the marginal annotations.)

This passage does not have any abbreviations, but it does have several word breaks at line end, which you will want to indicate with a hyphen in parentheses: (-)

Even though this script is the ultimate ancestor of our lower-case alphabet, it has some features that may trip you up until you get used to them. Here are some things to look out for:

When transcribing Half-Uncials, be very careful not to confuse f, r, and s, or to confuse a and u. In this manuscript, c, e, and t also have a tendency to look similar.

This word is aduersus. Note the low shoulder of r and the higher shoulder of the two tall s's:

This is a u followed by an a. Note how the first stroke of a curves inward at the top, but that of the u doesn't.

Look out for the li ligature, which looks like this:

Transcription Answer Key

7 Quis erit ex uobis homo
8 qui habeat ouem
9 unum et si ceciderit
10 haec sabbatis in fo(-)
11 ueam nonne tene(-)
12 bit et leuabit eam
13 quanto magis me(-)
14 lior est homo oue
15 itaque licet sabbatis
16 bene facere tunc
17 ait homini exten(-)
18 de manum tuam et
19 extendit et restitu(-)
20 ta est sanitati sicut
21 altera