Receipt of sale:
"Vegetus, assistant slave of Montanus the slave of the August Emperor, has bought the girl Fortunata, by nationality a Diablintian (from near Jublains in France), for 600 denarii1. She is warranted healthy and not liable to run away ..."
Here we have a slave of a slave buying himself a slave in first century2 Roman Britain.
This receipt for the purchase, discovered in London in 1996, was originally written on a wax writing tablet using a stylus. The wax has long since vanished but because the scribe had been so heavy handed, the text has been preserved scratched into the wooden backing board.
2 - But we could tell that already just from a quick glance at the script, right, Readers? After all, we're all expert paleographers now.
Having trouble reading those Vindolanda tablets? That might be because they are written in Old Roman Cursive, a kind of a scrawl developed around the 1st century AD to serve a literate population's everyday need for quickly writing things down without too much bother. Whereas the more familiar Roman capitals which had evolved from Phoenician (via Etruscan and Greek) were designed for carving into stone for public display, cursive styles were for personal correspondence and tuned to rapid writing with a pointed stylus on papyrus, wax or wood.
Old Roman Cursive differs from later handwriting styles in that most of the letterforms still resemble the squarish capitals but are connected occasionally with ligatures. Words are often abbreviated and word divisions are not always shown, sometimes being denoted by a space while at others by a dot. Numerals are usually distinguished from ordinary letters by the use of a superscript bar or leading and trailing dots.
1st century AD Majuscule-Cursive
2nd century AD Majuscule-Cursive (as in Vindolanda)
3rd century AD Minuscule-Cursive
By the 4th century things were really starting to go a little pear-shaped. Fortunately, Rome fell not long after and order was restored in the 8th century with the standardisation of the Carolingian Minuscule & Majuscule under the learned despotism of Charlemagne (although we should not fail to mention at this point that cute Irish script that you still see today adorning theme pubs from Boston to Bangalore).
Alas, the barbaric Gothic hoards could not be held at bay for long and even the Franks themselves eventual succumbed to their inner Germanity thus ushering in a Dark Age of condensed and nasty pointy black letters.
It took the cultural renaissance of Italy to finally reject the Northern Gothic style and to reassert the earlier rounder letter shapes. The Humanists took the Carolingian writing as its model (largely in the mistaken belief that it was the style of the ancient Romans). In concert with the contemporary revolution brought by the invention of the printing press, this Humanist style eventually supplanted the Gothic1 style throughout the whole of Europe and went on to become the basis for the typefaces that we still use today and it's cursive form the basis of our handwriting style.