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Methods of Abbreviation

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Abbreviation, METHODS OF.—The use of abbreviations is due, in part, to exigencies arising from the nature of the materials employed in the making of records, whether stone, marble, bronze, or parchment. Lapidaries, engravers, and copyists are under the same necessity of making the most of the space at their disposal. Such abbreviations, indeed, are seldom met with at the beginning of the Christian era; material of all kinds was plentiful, and there was, consequently, no need to be sparing in the use of it. By the third or fourth century, however, it had grown to be scarce and costly, and it became the artist’s aim to inscribe long texts on surfaces of somewhat scanty proportions. We shall not pause here to discuss the use of abbreviations in ordinary writing. The Romans possessed an alphabet, known by the name of Notae Tironienses, which served the same purpose as our modern systems of stenography. Its use necessitated a special course of study, and there is still much uncertainty as to the significance of the characters employed.

It is when we come to consider the subject of inscriptions cut in stone that we find the most frequent use of abbreviations. At certain late periods—for example, in Spain in the Middle Ages—this custom becomes abused to such an extent as to result in the invention of symbols which are undecipherable. In the best period of epigraphy certain rules are strictly observed. The abbreviations in common use fall under two chief heads: (I) The reduction of the word to its initial letter; (2) The reduction of a word to its first letters in a bunch, or to several letters taken at intervals in the body of the word and set side by side. This latter arrangement is almost exclusively Christian, whereas in heathen inscriptions the number of letters left in the abbreviation is more or less limited, yet no intermediate letter is omitted. The following readings may be noted: PON., PONT., PONTF. for Pontifex; DP., DEP., DPS., for Depositus; MCP for Municipii. Occasionally a phrase which has become stale by constant use, and has grown into a formula, is rarely found in any other form than that of its abbreviation, e.g. D.M. for Diis manibus, IHS for Jesus, just as we have kept R.I.P. for requiescat in pace. Lastly, a whole epitaph is often met with on tombs where the husband’s tribute to his wife takes the following form: DE QUA N(ullum) D(olorem) A(cceperat) N(isi) M(ortis).

Another form of Abbreviation consisted in doubling the last consonant of the word to be shortened as many times as there were persons alluded to, e.g. AVG for Augustus, AVGG for Augusti duo. Stonecutters, however, soon began to take liberties with this rule, and, instead of putting COSS for Consulibus duobus, invented the form, CCSS. Still, when there was occasion to refer to three or four people, this doubling of the last consonant gave way, of necessity, in abbreviations, to the simple sign of the plural. A horizontal line over a letter or set of letters was also much used, and was destined, indeed, to become almost universal in the Middle Ages. There is never any difficulty in settling the date of monuments where this sign of abbreviation occurs; the undulating line, or one curved at each end arid rising in the middle, only came into use at a comparatively late period.

Certain marks of Abbreviation have had so widespread a use as to merit special note. The ancient liturgical manuscripts which contain recensions of Masses, and are known as Sacramentaries, all have the letters VD at the beginning of the Preface, set side by side and joined by a transverse bar. Mabillon interprets this monogram as being that of the formula, “Vere dignum et justum est, requum et salutare”, an interpretation which is certainly the correct one. According to the various MSS., the monogram stands for the words vere dignum, or else for the whole formula; in the majority of instances the letters VD stand for the phrase, Vere dignum et justum est, which is followed by the rest of the context, aequum et, etc. In a large number of manuscripts these letters, VD, have fired the imagination of illuminators and copyists. It is, however, impossible to enter into a general description of the subject, Under a growth of arabesques, of foliage, of fancies of all kinds, the outline of the two letters is sometimes hard to distinguish. The symbol encroaches more and more, and grows from a mere initial into an ornamental page. The essential type varies little, though variants of some importance are met with. It was inevitable that medieval writers should build a whole system of mysticism and allegory on the VD of the Preface. John Beleth, rector of the theological school at Paris, devised an interpretation which found acceptance. The D, he wrote, a letter completely closed, signifies the Godhead, which has neither beginning nor end; the half-open V means the Manhood of Christ, which had a beginning, but has no end; the bar which intersects the upright lines of the VD and forms a cross, teaches us that the cross makes us fit for the life of God. Fancies of the same kind are to be found in Sicardus of Cremona and in Durandus of Mende. Various manuscripts contain hundreds of variable prefaces; the initial letters, however, are not drawn on a uniform pattern, and the chief attempts at ornamentation are invariably confined to the Praefatio Communis immediately preceding the Canon of the Mass. The first two letters of the Canon, TE, have also been made the theme of various decorations, though less curious and less varied than those above referred to.

A word may be said concerning the abbreviation D.O.M., sometimes seen over the doors of our churches, and which, whatever may be said to the contrary, has never been a Christian symbol. The formula, in full, is Deo Optima Maximo and referred originally to Jupiter. The abbreviation, IHV, IHS, is found on a great number of different objects: ancient gems, coins, epitaphs, dedications, and diplomas. The symbol IHS was destined to endure for many ages, but it is only since the time of St. Bernardine of Sienna that it has come into such widespread use. It is impossible, with the information available, to say whether it is of Greek or Latin origin. Lastly, the abbreviation, XMT, meaning, Christon Maria lenna, is often, found on monuments of eastern origin.


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