Years 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.