Medieval Writing
Why Paleography Sucks (5)
Some of the early paleographers of Gothic book hand, like those of document hand, used simple English descriptors to define individual examples. So something like "a fine liturgical hand" would refer to something large and bold that could be read under flickering candles, while "a cursive hand of medium grade" meant something scribbled off fairly rapidly, but reasonably legibly. These were reasonable descriptors, but not particularly useful as comparative analytical tools.
Albert Derolez (Derolez 2003, pp.13-24) gives a neat summary of the ways in which the classification of Gothic book hands has developed. As scholars have access to increasing numbers of examples of provenanced manuscripts, there have been regularly renovated attempts to define classification systems that allow comparison of scripts across time and geographical areas. This involves a Latinate classification with some superficial resemblance to that used in the realms of botany and zoology. There are some wee problems with that. If you adhere to the theory of evolution, then the sequence of Latin terms that represent, say, family, phylum, genus and species, and any intermediate categories, represent an irreversible divergence. Species may disappear entirely and become extinct, but they do not recombine with their ancestors or cousins. This is not true of handwriting. The relationships between identifable classes of writing are far more complex, and the boundaries are not so easily drawn.
Criteria for defining scripts have not always been consistent, so that scripts have at times been classified by such aspects as the ductus and slope of the nib, by the treatment of specific parts of the letters such as ascenders and descenders, by the degree of cursiveness, by the care in execution, or by the shapes of specific letters. The specific terminology has been tweaked so that the same words have been recycled and used in somewhat different ways. For example, the degree of cursiveness of a script does not necessarily equate with the lack of care in its execution. There are beautiful and careful cursive book hands. Cursiva and currens have come to mean different things, as the latter term is applied to hastily written scripts.
In some cases, the same term may mean different things. The word rotunda can refer to the most informally produced grade of gothica textualis, or it can mean the beautiful rounded, and often exquisitely produced, formal Gothic script of Italy. The problem of the term Secretary has already been mentioned. The French term Bâtarde is usually said to mean something different to bastarda, or not as the case may be. Alternatively, it might be called gothica hybrida formata, or lettres de formes, or lettres Bourguigonnes, which is not scientific, but you may find it out there.
French batarde This is a section from a mid 15th century manuscript of the Conquêtes de Charlemagne (Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, MS 9066-68, Vol.1, f.138b). (From New Palaeographical Society 1904)
Whatever you call it, it looks like this.
By extending the terminology to include book hands of a great range of cursiveness and general appearance, there are scripts classified as Gothic which do not in any way resemble the old archetype of Gothic textura or textualis. Gothic has been reduced to a term which refers to scripts produced over several centuries and in a diversity of styles.
Segment from a page of a 13th century Flemish psalter or breviary, from a private collection.
Here we have a segment of a late 14th century copy of a poem on Holy Meditation (British Library, Egerton 3245, f.193). By permission of the British Library.
So the two examples above, very different in appearance, are both designated Gothic. The first is a classic gothica textualis of some sort of intermediate grade. (I'm not even going to go there.) The second is a cursive with some Secretary letter forms, but a certain non-cursive formality; not entirely running writing in the old primary school classification system. Perhaps it could be called Bastard secretary, or gothica cursiva 'secretary' formata or gothica hybrida libraria or whatever! Meanwhile, Derolez includes certain book hands from Italy under the general category of Gothic, even though the word Gothic was originally a rude appellation applied by Italians to what they perceived as the barbaric, spiky hands of the northerners, clearly no better than their ancestors who brought down the mighty Roman Empire.
While this muddlesome process of reclassification is working towards developing better analytical tools for paleography, it is not to be thought that the authors who have devised or who use these schemes are deluded about the difficulties that they pose. Every author who has ever written about paleography has written about the difficulty of assigning scripts unequivocally to a particular category, and about the different criteria that can be used for the comparison of scripts. None of the schemes are truly objective classification systems, but they are important aids to systematising the study of a subject which relies heavily on the absorption and mental structuring of information that is primarily visual and to a large extent intuitive. Whatever nomenclature is used, the person who can give the most accurate analytical commentary on a script is the person who has closely examined the greatest number of examples, with some sort of framework to hang their visual imagery on. Herein lies the problem for the rest of us.
Paleography manuals containing lots of examples with transcriptions and discussion are not the hottest of bestsellers, and they don't come out very often. Those of us who do not have the good fortune to have constant access to to the British Library or similar are likely to be educating our visual facility with scripts using reproductions in books of varying ages, some of them very old, which have used different description and classification systems. They will not match up. It doesn't matter whether you are a proponent of the Brown or the Derolez system for the classification of Gothic scripts, and are prepared to do eighteen rounds in the ring against all comers to defend it, it is necessary to admit that other systems are in use. You can't rationalise them with little tables of concordance, or at least you can only do it for little limited subsets, because it really doesn't work. So what is the answer?
To start with, take a deep breath. DON'T PANIC. They are only words. If you are working quietly in your own study and wish to designate four different scripts, you can call them John, Paul, George and Ringo if you like. They are only labels. Then take a long walk and think about just how much of this you actually need to know. If your primary purpose is to read a bunch of 15th century wills downloaded from the National Archives, you don't need to know what the script is called. Just find some appropriate paleographical exemplars and exercises, work out the letters and do it.
If you are writing a thesis or preparing something for publication and feel it is necessary to define a script or two, decide which system of nomenclature you are going to use and use it exclusively, referencing its source. Don't muddle different systems together. Too many people have done that already. If you expect your work to be peer reviewed, it might be politic to choose a scheme of somebody who is still alive and working, however simpler and more elegant the schemes of departed scholars may seem.
If you are a world famous expert on some esoteric corner of the paleographical universe and are writing a whole new taxonomy for it, you don't need to be reading this article. Find yourself something useful to do, or while away some time reading Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog.
There is an increasing tendency for manuscript studies to be more inclusive. Paleography, codicology and illumination and decoration are not necessarily treated as separate subjects. Barbara Shailor (Shailor 1991), Rowan Watson (Watson 2003) and Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham (Clemens and Graham 2007) have all produced introductory books in this more integrated mode. This does, I think, reflect the more diverse ways that people are studying books. After I bought a copy of Eamon Duffy's fascinating book on the ways that English people wrote various addenda and annotations into their books of hours (Duffy 2006), the good folk at sent me a list of other books I might like to buy, all about things that people have scribbled all over and around the texts of their books. It's not all about paleography any more. There are so many questions that can be investigated through the study of handwriting.....
....... but if you are going to be able to read it, you still have to learn some paleography.
Most of the illustrations used in this section are represented by a script example, and sometimes paleography exercises, elsewhere on this website. Find them through the Script Index. You will discover that these have been presented with a minimum of esoteric terminology.
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