Medieval Writing
Why Paleography Sucks
This whole project began because medieval history students, undergraduates and graduates alike, hated paleography and found it tedious and boring. This is very strange, because it is only through learning the skills of paleography that historians can directly address their primary source material in its original manuscript form. Personally, I think paleography is absolutely fascinating as it combines history, psychology, art and science and can be used to address any number of interesting problems and issues. But there is something about the scholarship and presentation of paleography that is exceedingly daunting. Nevertheless, with the ever increasing availability of digital facsimiles of medieval manuscript material housed in major museums and libraries, there are more and more people who want to have a go at reading funny old writing.
corbel A medieval history student when faced with the prospect of doing a paleography course.
There are a number of reasons why the subject is so unapproachable, and I do not include the dreary ancient scholar's whinging that young people these days won't knuckle down to work on things properly, don't do the reading ...blah, blah, blah. In fact, it is the nature of the work done by ancient scholars, worthy and valuable as it is, that scares the pants off those who are approaching the subject for the first time. Let us take a look at the problems, and then work out how to deal with them.
Firstly, paleography has been regarded in the past as a separate and discrete set of highly technical skills that could be brought into play to solve the problems of other scholars. Those skills could be used to date manuscripts (roughly!), detect forgeries, identify the works of individual scribes or of particular schools of writing and systematise the whole process of reading old scripts. It was seen as a handmaid discipline and has not been regarded as a branch of social history in its own right. And yet many of those old paleographers knew their material so well that the examples they chose to illustrate their technicalities have wonderful messages from history embedded in them.
writ This shows the upper left hand corner of a royal writ of 1328 to the abbot and convent of Westminster (Westminster Abbey Muniments. Coronation No. II). (From The New Palaeographical Society 1910)
The example of 14th century chancery hand shown above is actually part of a writ of Edward III, ordering the abbot and convent of Westminster to hand over the coronation stone of the kings of Scotland to the sheriffs of London for return to its homeland. Now we know they didn't do that, but I don't think we know why not. However, some past compiler of paleography samples thought that of all the 14th century writs which could be used for a mere paleography exercise, this one just might grab the attention. But in order to read it, it is necessary to plod through the mechanics of formal exercises. Personally, I think that some archivists and paleographers could write more interesting history books than some academic historians, because they know what fascinating goodies are in the archives.
You can look at this particular example in more detail by going to the script sample and paleography exercise on this website. It's a hard one, but definitely not boring.
There has been a trend towards books that look at writing as an activity which has a social, historical and political context. Writers such as Malcolm Parkes (Parkes 1991, Parkes 2008), Bernard Bischoff (Bischoff 1990, Bischoff 1994), Armando Petrucci (Petrucci 1995) and M. T. Clanchy (Clanchy 1993) have all examined the situations in which writers and readers worked, and how this affected the way they read and wrote. Some would argue that this is not paleography as such, but it depends heavily on the schemes and vast systematic knowledge built up by paleographical scholars, which some of these authors can definitely claim to be in their own right. Perhaps paleography has now outgrown the stage of accumulation and classification of information, and is now progressing down the road of social analysis. Albert Derolez (Derolez 2003, p.2) describes this as a crisis for paleography rather than a development. These changes might make it all the more interesting for us, but referencing the old cliche about dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants, we must acknowledge all the painstaking work that laid the foundations for the discipline.
Another problem is that paleographical studies tend to be highly specialised and focused, in time, in geographical space and in the types of writing covered. At the simplest level, paleographers of book hand and those of document hand tend not to look at the same writings, and even use different vocabularies and classification systems. This division can make it difficult to follow the ways in which book hands and document hands, and the writers of both, have interacted over the centuries.
bastarda script This passage comes from a 15th century copy of Thomas Hoccleve's Regement of Princes, composed around 1412 (British Library, Harley 4866, f.88). By permission of the British Library.
The above book hand would be described as a Gothic bastarda or a gothica hybrida formata by a book paleographer. The practically identical script as found in an English document of the time would probably be simply called a chancery hand, or a court hand, by a document paleographer. The very close similarities between certain book and document hands in England in the 15th century may help to tell us something about the organisation of the writing professions and the nature of their education, but we have to look beyond the specialist terminologies.
If you check out the paleography section of the Bibliography page of this website, you will discover that many books on the subject are very specialised in scope. There are books on English uncial or cursive Gothic book hands, or Irish script. Even books which purport to give an overview of handwriting history tend to reveal a bias towards the expertises of their authors. There are experts on pre-Carolingian scripts, for whom everything after the 11th century is just Gothic. There are experts on the scribes of the English chancery, who never provide comparisons even with what was happening contemporaneously in the French or German chanceries, for example. There are experts on the myriads of variants that make up formal Gothic book hand. There is a significant divide between those who have studied the rather limited number of examples of early medieval script, and have classified them in great detail, and those who are battling under the hugely increased sample set of the later middle ages. Late medieval cursive scripts seem to have defied all but the most rudimentary attempts at systematisation.
An interrelated issue is that paleographical studies tend to be geographically, and therefore linguistically, specialised. If you want to read about German paleography, you must read German and if you want to read about Italian paleography, you must read Italian. This is a good reason to bone up on some reading skills in another language. I have recently been having some conversations with a Polish paleographer about a website he is involved with. It is up there for the world to see, but it is in Polish. (See Lublin W. Dokumencie) An Icelandic website displays wonderful manuscripts of Viking sagas and the like, in Icelandic. (See Icelandic Manuscript Institute) And where are the books that help you to decode the scripts of Polish or Icelandic manuscripts? If you only read English language books, you might be forgiven for thinking that the entire medieval world consisted of England and France. These geographical blinkers tend to obscure the interrelationships between medieval cultures, as evidenced by mutual influences in their writing styles.
Why Read It?

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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last modified 7/11/2011.