Under a magnifying glass

When dealing with medieval manuscripts people often wonder about the way one is able to read the various medieval scripts. In particular manuscripts with glosses can indeed form a challenge for students and scholars dealing with them. This week someone asked whether scholars would use a magnifying glass. Today it seems this is only one of the tools to approach small scripts and difficult writing hands. On this blog I have written earlier about the uses of macro photography for dealing with tiny handwriting, and you can see there how this helps to zoom in on the smallest details. However, the success of using any tool depends also on skills often acquired patiently during classes for the auxiliary historical sciences. Palaeography is one of the oldest auxiliary sciences helping historians and other scholars to read and interpret the texts in medieval manuscripts. Surrounded by all kind of digital tools one can easily overlook the use of online tutorials for learning at least basic skills in palaeography. In this post I will look at some of the better and lesser known tutorials.

Facing small letters

Detail of manuscript with the Instituiones Iustiniani, the SAuthenticum, the Tres Libri Codicis and the Libri Feudorum - Yale Law Library, ms. Rare Flat 11-0030 - image courtesy Yale Law Library, New Haven, CT

Detail of a glossed manuscript with the Institutiones Iustiniani, the Authenticum, the Tres Libri Codicis and the Libri Feudorum; France, around 1250 – Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School, ms. Rare Flat 11-0030, fol. 143r – image resized, courtesy Mike Widener, Yale Law School, New Haven, CT

This image of a legal manuscript with Roman law texts kept at Yale’s Lillian Goldman Law Library figured this month in a discussion where the question arose about its legibility and the ways to decipher the various hands and elements of the texts. Luca Loschiavo described the Authenticum in this manuscript with preaccursian glosses for the Mosaico project at Bologna; he dates it to the first half of the thirteenth century. It can be most helpful to look at online tutorials helping you to acquire skills in medieval palaeography. Luckily these guides exist in various European languages.

Let’s start here with some tutorials in French. After all, we should give due credit to the French Benedictine monks of the congregation of Saint-Maur – more about their manuscripts can be read at Analecta Maurina – who started in the seventeenth century to create palaeography as a indispensable auxiliary science. In his fundamental book De re diplomatica (1681about diplomatics, the twin sister of palaeography, Jean Mabillon also laid the foundations of palaeography. The website of the École nationale des Chartes in Paris, one of the oldest institutions for editing medieval sources and training historians, in particular archivists, has a special subdomain, Thelème, for the main historical auxiliary sciences. The dossiers at Thelème will bring you to images of twenty manuscripts and more than eighty documents. Even if you will not use this website much because you do not read French easily, it is most useful to be aware of the ensemble of these auxiliary sciences, apart from diplomatics (the study of medieval charters) and palaeography, sigillography for dealing with seals, chronology for the interpretation of datings in texts, onomastics for interpreting names, epigraphy for inscriptions, and toponymy for interpreting the names of locations. This list for medieval studies is not exhaustive, and other historical periods have of course different sets of auxiliary sciences.

Between 2007 and 2014 Dominique Stutzmann (IRHT and EPHE, Paris) posted on his blog Paléographie médiévale a number of images of medieval documents as items for palaeographical exercises, a number of them even with corrections and notes. At Lyon you can find the Album interactif de paléographie médiévale, with documents in Latin, French and Italian in various degrees of difficulty. The interactive exercises show immediately the quality of your deciphering work. At the French portal Ménestrel for medieval studies you can consult a fine section on paléographie médiévale. The website of the new project for French Renaissance Palaeography of the Newberry Library in Chicago and the University of Toronto has an interface in English and contains also resources for the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

In Germany and Switzerland, too, online tutorials have been developed. One of the most comprehensive tutorials, Ad fontes, has been created by a team at the university of Zürich. Thomas Frenz (Universität Passau), well known for his website about medieval papal documents, has also developed an online tutorial, the Paläographisches Lesetraining. His examples reach even the twentieth century. Paläographie Online is a website created by Peter Orth and Georg Vogeler at Cologne. For some of these tutorials you need to register yourself, but registration works in a matter of minutes. The university of Cologne has a an interesting portal helping students to start doing medieval studies.

There is yet another reason to start with these tutorials in French and German. Until recently you had to search wide and far for any online tutorial in English for medieval palaeography. In the United Kingdom the National Archives launched only recently a tutorial for Latin palaeography. There is a second online medieval palaeography tutorial in English at a portal for Anglo-Norman studies of Leicester University. The Scriptorium tutorial (Cambridge University) starts with manuscripts from around 1450. Only a few months ago the Brigham Young University in Utah presented Script Tutorials, but these will focus on documents between 1500 and 1800. The Institute of Historical Research, London, has created the InScribe online tutorials for which one has to pay. Only its introduction – with an online transcription tool – is free accessible. In 2015 the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library has created a guide to several kind of scripts and manuscripts, including examples of medieval scripts and a tutorial for transcribing Latin manuscripts.

Archival records and manuscripts

However useful it might be to mention here more tutorials, for example the Taedium Bastidor tutorial at Barcelona for documents from Catalonia and Grafos (Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha), this points only more clearly to the fact many tutorials deal primarily with medieval archival records and documents, and often not at all or only as a second group with medieval manuscripts. It is wise to turn to online projects covering both manuscripts and other documents. In particular DigiPal, a project developed at King’s College, London, can serve as a most useful reservoir of images for palaeographical training for medieval manuscripts. The Visigothic script is served in an outstanding way at the Littera Visigothica blog of Ainoa Castro, although she does not offer a tutorial. Diane Tillotson brings at her website Medieval Writing exercises and much information about manuscripts and scripts, including an exhaustive overview of online tutorials and other links, in particular to digitized versions of some of the classic printed manuals for medieval palaeography.

You will probably forgive me mentioning the portal Medieval Manuscripts in Dutch Collections when you visit its very detailed set of links for specific subjects concerning the study of medieval manuscripts, and also a section on palaeography with examples of different book scripts. It is easy to find medieval manuscripts online on which you might test your skills in deciphering various scripts. There is an online guide by Hans Kienhorst and Mikel Kors for transcribing literary texts in Middle Dutch in medieval manuscripts. The Iter Digitalicum website of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven stands out with its very large image gallery of manuscripts and letters kept at Louvain. Apart from the very concise information at Ductus I searched in vain for an online tutorial in Italian until I finally found a working link to the tutorial by Antonio Cartelli and Marco Palma at Cassino. The links to Italian tutorials provided by Ductus do not function anymore. For Scandinavian countries I could not yet find quickly any online tutorial, but the Swedish website Medeltidhandskrifter i Sverige with a booklet (PDF) on Paleografi: introduktion till den svenska latinskriftens historia by Patrik Åström is certainly useful. The section on manuscripts and the splendid links collection of the Kungliga Biblioteket in Stockholm are a model of its kind.

A detail of the same manuscript page

Zooming in on details of the same manuscript page (at Inst. 1.1.1)

The scripts used for medieval manuscripts can differ substantially from those seen in medieval records. Training in reading archival records will help you to decipher the scripts used in manuscripts, but it is advisable to learn first more generally about medieval manuscripts. One of the complications you might encounter are different writing hands. In fact the manuscript at New Haven does show this clearly. Distinguishing between writing hands, dating and ascribing them correctly surely belongs to a more sophisticated phase of palaeographical training. The manuscript in the picture contains also faded glosses. Here you might want to use ultraviolet light or other methods to make the script better visible in order to help you finding answers concerning the production of this manuscript at various stages.

Just deciphering a medieval text can be challenging in itself, but it should be a phase bringing you closer to the interpretation of a text, the study of the artefact bearing a text and gaining insights into its context. A legal manuscript might be written in the distinctive script called littera Bononiensis, the „Bolognese script“, but this script was also used outside Bologna, and thus such manuscripts can stem from other Italian universities. Online tutorials for medieval palaeography can help you to gain skills for pursuing research into the world of medieval texts and culture. Once you have made some progress using the online tutorials you will certainly want to participate in classes and courses together with others keen on lifting the veils from medieval manuscripts and records. It is worth reminding you should benefit also from printed guides helping to find your way into the fascinating world of the medieval book.

A postscript

At Paleografia, another blog of the Hypotheses network, Leonor Zozaya provides a fine detailed discussion in Spanish of online tutorials for medieval and Early Modern palaeography, and you will find there also more relevant links. For later periods in Spanish history it is well worth visiting the Spanish palaeography website of the Dominican Studies Institute (CUNY, New York).

The Special Collections of Leeds University Library have created the mobile app Medieval Handwriting with 14 examples of manuscripts and 12 images of charters. Although their is no online tutorial you can make here your own transcriptions and compare them with the full transcriptions, to be combined with the manuscript images and guide on the website in Leeds.

Erik Kwakkel (Leiden) has created a very helpful online introduction to medieval books, Books and the dissemination of knowledge in medieval Europe (Khan Academy). At Quill – Books before print he offers a kind of illustrated glossary for terms surrounding the medieval book.

Zusammenfassung

Eine glossierte juristische Handschrift der Yale Law Library ist hier Anlass für ein Überblick paläographischer Netzseiten mit Übungen im Bereich der mittelalterlichen Handschriften und Dokumenten.

Sommaire

Un manuscrit médiéval avec des gloses juridiques au Yale Law Library suscite ici un panorama des sites offrants des tutoriels de paléographie pour les documents et manuscrits du Moyen Âge.

Samenvatting

Een vraag over een middeleeuws juridisch handschrift met glossen in de Yale Law Library is aanleiding om een beknopt overzicht te bieden van websites met online gidsen en oefeningen voor het lezen van het schrift in middeleeuws handschriften en documenten.

 


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