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Cursing and Cursive: scripts

Writers of the tablets used a wide range of scripts. A quarter of the Uley and Bath tablets were written in capitals, both a monumental form similar to that used on stone inscriptions and a ‘rustic’ or ‘bookhand’ form, more familiar from literary texts and headings of documents. Most however were written in ‘cursive’, a script used for everyday documents and letters. Two main styles of cursive writing are known, ‘Old Roman Cursive’ (ORC) in use in the first three centuries AD, and ‘New Roman Cursive’ (NRC), replacing ORC from the later third century AD onwards. The tablet from Caerleon (Caerleon) is written in the earliest style of ORC, dated to 75-125 AD and very similar to the script of stylus tablets from Vindolanda. ORC characters are often small, slanting to the right and sometimes resemble modern upper-case letters more than lower-case letters (Uley 1). The letter forms of NRC look more familiar, with a closer appearance to their modern lower-case equivalents and written with less of a slant (Hamble). Indirectly NRC is the ancestor of the scripts used for present day handwriting in Europe. On lead experienced scribes could execute flowing individual letter forms and texts (example? ­ RSOT suggests tab sul. 10 ­ use image?).

Words are rarely separated, the breaks between them occasionally (and inconsistently) being identified by points (Pagans Hill 7). Texts are not punctuated and only rarely do the scribes differentiate the heading from the body of the text. The use of ligatures, joining two or more letters together, is common. Symbols and abbreviations are occasionally used, a struck- through x for example for the denarius (Pagans Hill 7) or of s with a line above it to indicate supra in supradictus (‘aforesaid’ or ‘abovementioned’) or ss for suprascriptus (‘written above’) (Uley 2).

The very writing of curses was manipulated for magical effect. Letters could be written in mirror-image form or the order of letters in a word, of words in a line, or of lines in a text might be reversed. The writer might also change the direction in which words or letters were written in alternating lines (‘boustrophedon’ ­ a Greek term named after the movement of an ox-team ploughing a field). Some of the texts excavated from the spring at Bath have been so treated. On some tablets from other provinces the god and / or the victim, sometimes in bound position, were also drawn. Tablets are also found with ‘pseudo-inscriptions’, scratches made to imitate writing, or sometimes with no trace of writing at all. Perhaps for the illiterate, mimicry of the text or the act of writing, accompanied by a spoken prayer or spell and deposition in an appropriate place was judged to be equally powerful.

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