Thanks to Gregg Schwendner for drawing my attention to the Vatican Library website on Greek palaeography prepared by Timothy Janz, scriptor graecus and director of the printed books department of the Vatican Library. The site has an excellent discussion of the history and practice of Greek palaeography and is, as you might expect, very well illustrated.
Especially noteworthy is Janz’s evaluation of the developmental schema for the “Biblical Majuscule” most closely associated with Guglielmo Cavallo. Note Janz’s comments in the second paragraph and at the end of this quotation:
“A defining moment in the history of Greek paleography was the publication in 1967 of Guglielmo Cavallo’s book Ricerche sulla maiuscola biblica. … [I]t was a methodological manifesto, explicitly invoking a theory about how scripts develop and change (namely, the one set forth in G. Cencetti’s book Lineamenti di storia della scrittura latina, esp. pp. 51-56). Cencetti’s theory posits a ‘normal’ script (scrittura usuale) in everyday use at any given time and place and subject to continuous evolution (due to both cultural and technical factors), which constitutes the ever-changing background or ‘climate’ within which contemporary book scripts and chancery scripts establish themselves as ‘canons.’ (He further distinguished between ‘styles’ [which may be thought of as optional but systematic modifications of a ‘canon’] and ‘types’ [which, while similar to ‘canons,’ cannot be observed to have reached the same level of standardization].) According to this theory, ‘canonized’ scripts (scritture canonizzate) — of which the Greek ‘Biblical majuscule’ is one —, bearing well-defined characteristics, far outlive the momentary state of the constantly evolving “normal” script which gives birth to them, and as a result they tend to evolve according to a predictable pattern, involving an initial period of formation, followed by what one might call a period of maturity (though Cavallo speaks rather of ‘perfection’), and then by a period of decadence which sets in when the deviation between the ossified canonized script and the constantly evolving ‘normal’ script has grown to a point where scribes are no longer able to produce the canonized script naturally and proficiently.
Applying such a theory to Greek majuscule scripts, as Cavallo did, produced results which were, and remain, remarkable in a number of ways. On the one hand, the deductive reasoning on display throughout Cavallo’s account of Biblical majuscule means that almost every one of his assertions — from his exemplifications of the letter-shapes themselves (pp. 7-10), which are not reproduced from any particular manuscript source but apparently represent Cavallo’s own idealized abstractions from his (admittedly considerable) experience with many manuscript sources, to the characterization of this or that concrete instance of the script as ‘formative,’ ‘perfect’ or ‘decadent’ — is open to the charge of begging the question. On the other hand, this method allowed Cavallo take a large group of manuscripts which offer hardly any clues as to their original provenance or (even relative) date, and to assign to each one a fairly precise place on a developmental arc (one might also say, on a continuum) which he interpreted in chronological terms, running from formation to maturity to decadence. Since very few of his manuscripts are actually objectively datable, the only “proof” of the validity of his interpretation is the observation that the method “works” in the sense that it yields a plausible classification of otherwise unclassifiable hands (it is fair to add that the few objectively datable manuscripts included do indeed fall in the “right” places, namely P. Ryl. 16, before 255-6 [“perfection”, pp. 45-47]; Vindob. Med. Gr. 1, about 512 CE [“decadence”, pp. 94-97]; Vat. gr. 1666, 800 CE [“decadence”, p. 107]; it is notable that Cavallo’s entire reconstruction of the ‘formation’ of the canon is not, and cannot be, corroborated by any objective evidence, due to the lack of dated exemplars)[my emphasis–BN]. In the absence of other workable proposals, this has become the standard chronological framework for classifying exemplars of the script known as “Biblical majuscule.”
These remarks seem to me to be a fair assessment of Cavallo’s method, at least as it was represented in his 1967 classic. In more recent years, Cavallo has moved away from the vocabulary of “canon,” although the developmental schema remains in place (see, for instance, Cavallo, La scrittura greca e latinia dei papiri: Una introduzione, Fabrizio Serra 2008, page 15, note 1).
Janz’s last sentence really jumped out at me: “In the absence of other workable proposals, this has become the standard chronological framework…” This statement reminds me of multiple conversations I have had with Dead Sea Scrolls scholars in relation to Frank Cross’s typology of Hebrew and Aramaic scripts. The Scrolls scholars, at least those who acknowledge the extreme fragility of Cross’s schema and its lack of securely dated samples, will often tell me that they simply have to use Cross’s datings of the scripts of the scrolls because there is nothing to replace it. This seems to me to be one of those cases in which we should instead just admit that, with the current state of the evidence, we cannot carry out assignment of dates to scripts with the fine-grained precision that some scholars of older generations have pretended to achieve. Palaeography can be a useful tool for assigning dates with broad ranges, but we risk deceiving ourselves if we expect high levels of precision.
It is also good to recall that for the Biblical Majuscule as for other types of Greek writing of the Roman era, graphic difference does not always mean chronological difference.