A remarkable manuscript bifolium from the turn of the twelfth century. Gregory the Great’s letters in a clear, precise Carolingian script.

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The Document.

A bifolium fragment (1075-1125 CE, Southern Germany) from one of the most important documentary collections to have survived from the Middle Ages - Pope Gregory the First’s collection of letters known as the Registrum epistularum.  Much of what is known about his papacy comes from the collection that was assembled after his death.  Over 850 of his letters survive, to a vast array of addressees on an equally vast array of subjects.

This bifolium includes all or part of Letters 1 to 5 which Gregory wrote in September and October 590, immediately after becoming pope.

The addressees are:  All the Bishops of Sicily;  John, Bishop of Constantinople;  Justinus, Prætor of Sicily;  Paul, Scholasticus;  and Theoctista, Sister of the Emperor.

The document is written on parchment in two columns per folio of 27 - 29  lines in a clear, well spaced Carolingian hand with few abbreviations,  contractions  and ligatures, and with spaces left for 2-line capitals.  The text is continuous, so the fragment must be the centre bifolium of the gathering.  For the purpose of identification, the two centre folios are designated Verso A and Recto B and are backed by Recto A and Verso B.

The Script

Carolingian minuscule script was created under the patronage of the Emperor Charlemagne (who was called Carolus in Latin, hence Carolingian).  It was a critical innovation in the history of writing and had a profound impact on European culture and society.  It allowed the Latin alphabet to be easily recognised by the literate class from one region to another.

Its development, in the late 8th, early 9th centuries marked a significant step forward in the standardisation and dissemination of knowledge and paved the way for the development of subsequent scripts and typography. 

The orderliness, simplicity, clarity, and dignity of the new script were virtues that caused it to eventually became a relatively standardised script over an area ranging from Spain to Scandinavia, England to northern Italy. 

There are four major defining characteristics of Carolingian Minuscule. 

The first is that the script is written with spaces between the words.

The second is that it has ascenders and descenders; that is, portions of some of the letters either extend above the median line or descend below the baseline, similar to our modern minuscule English (think b or h for ascenders, and q or p for descenders)

The third is the Uncial letter (capital) at the beginning of each major section, paragraph, or sentence.

The final characteristic is that Caroline Minuscule uses a number of different punctuation marks (see below) ; e.g. punctus  (minor pause); punctus elevatus (major pause); punctus versus  (sentence end) ; and  punctus interrogativus indicating a question.

All these characteristics are evident on this document and distinguish it from its successor,  Proto-gothic script -  the fore-runner of full Gothic scripts like Gothic Textura and Gothic Precisus.   Proto-gothic script began appearing at the beginning of the 12th century.  Serifs lose their Caroline club shape and become split or curved beak serifs.  Most letter forms, including the “f” and tall “s” now sit on the baseline instead of piercing below it as is the case with this document.  Notable exceptions are “g” “j” “p” “q” “y”.  Connecting strokes in the letters become hairlines.  By the end of the 12th century the connector strokes have “scrunched” toward the beginning of the letter and are the lozenges we expect when looking at full gothic scripts.


Punctus: (Figure 1). A punctuation mark consisting of a single point that looks like a modern period.  It was first used (as here) to indicate a minor pause but later came to be used to mark sentence endings. (here used in lines 1, 3 and 4).

Punctus elevatus:  (Figure 2). A mark used to indicate a pause of medium value. The mark consisted of a single point with a check like mark above it.

(here used in Line 2 after …valuissem).

Punctus versus:  (Figure 3).  A mark used at sentence endings until it was replaced for this purpose by the simple Punctus.  Its form resembles that of a modern semicolon.

(here used in Line 3 after …commendamus).

Punctus interrogativus:  (Figure 4).   A mark used to indicate a question. It consisted of a single point with a mark resembling an inverted sideways ’S’

or a tilde above it.  (here used in the centre line after …ita ut se diligit.)

Examples of these punctuation marks are illustrated in the extensive research notes included with the bifolium which also includes a full English translation of the letters.


Size.   Bifolium c. 290x400 mm.


Written in Southern Germany at the turn of the twelfth century and doubtless for a monastic or cathedral centre.   Acquired from an American dealer, 2022.  Unconditionally guaranteed genuine as described.

Item No.  MOT101a

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