Holy Palaeography!

PalaeographyYears ago, when I studied at the University of York, palaeography was actually a required class that all medievalists, regardless of specialization, had to take.  Training started in the first term–all new medievalists took an introductory palaeography course with topics that ranged from the earliest scripts to the latest in the period.  The second term, we were divided up into groups determined by our rough area and time period of anticipated research.  I ended up working with the earliest styles and examples, and a good portion of that was rather challenging–say, everything before Carolingian minuscule.  At the end of the term, we had to take, and successfully pass, a palaeography exam.  One of the biggest challenges for me was the fact that we studied palaeographic examples in both Latin and Anglo-Saxon–the latter language was not included in my studies at the time, and I had trouble working out the unique forms.  At least, where Latin was concerned, I could make more educated guesses about what a letter–or a missing letter–could likely be.

For the first time in a very long time, I started looking over manuscript images in order to rebuild these dwindling palaeographic skills.  The first stop on this journey was the most standard–back to the Carolingians.  At first glance, I thought: “Great, I actually think I can make most of this out.”  Then, when I sat down with the page and started to transcribe, I simultaneously started to question myself.

Is that an “I”?  Or a weird “u”?  Or some kind of random mistake?

What the heck do those dots mean?  Two dots means. . . something when the word begins with a “q,” but three dots over a word without an apparent abbreviation means. . . take a tea break?  

It seems manuscript copyists were perpetually at war with the letters “m” and “p,” leaving them out wherever possible.  And, any word that begins with the letter “q,” but who likes the letter “q” anyway?

Special thanks to whoever the guy was who wrote all over this manuscript between the lines, however long-dead he may be.

A reality-check to say the least, but a very valuable one.  The lesson: reading the script on any manuscript is, indeed, a different skill than simply translating the Latin.  No matter how much Latin I may know (and, trust me–if I learned anything else, it is the fact that my Latin certainly needs work), working out the text of the manuscript is, and will always be, the first order of business, and it is certainly one that deserves much time and attention.


3 thoughts on “Holy Palaeography!

  1. Your post reminds me of my own required paleography class in grad school (a long time ago). We prepared with bw xerox copies, but still when your turn came in class it all turned to chicken scratchings. If, however, you got particularly stuck, our professor would say “just gestalt it.” Unfortunately that never worked. Finally, the last day of class, we were invited to bring manuscript images for our professor to decipher on the fly. My chosen page was in Old English, not one of his many regular languages to read. He got stuck. I said…. And I still passed and got my Ph.D.!
    Fast forward to now, deciphering bilingual (glossed) manuscripts: get a calligraphy pen and start writing. It really does help to develop the eye and the slow process helps me see things I wouldn’t otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. With failing eyesight and a life time in front of a computer screen reading legal jargon, I think I have a little understanding of the complexity and how written history can be misunderstood. I take from this that it is not always the winner who writes the history but the interpretor centuries later!


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