Medieval Paleography

Good evening students of HIST 4006 (and anyone else who happens to check this blog),


Tomorrow I will be leading our seminar on paleography, or, researching and dating changes in writing patterns and practices. I am nervous to lead this seminar but know that I am in a classroom full of supportive peers. For this class we are expected to be familiar with five separate chapters.


The first chapter comes from the textbook and details the different types of text and decoration that are present in manuscripts. It begins with detailing the tools that are used such as the parchment, penknife, ink, etc. It provides some instructions for making ancient ink as well. It explains the different stages of copying and the set up a monk would have when writing manuscripts. One particularly interesting part of this chapter is the pecia. This is a system used in early universities where a copy of the required text was rented out to students to allow them to make their own copies and then returned after completion.


The next chapter we are required to read for this class also comes from our textbook and outlines the correction, glossing, and annotation process in medieval manuscripts. It details how corrections were done when the manuscript was complete and provides examples of types of corrections that are made. For example, the most common mistake, the ‘eyeskip’ was when a monk missed part of a manuscript when copying. These mistakes were scraped off using a penknife and the corrections were made accordingly. This chapter also details how glossing became more complex during the period of study (12th century onward). Various annotations were also explained in this chapter such as finding aids, line fillers, pen trials, etc.


The third reading for this class is also from the textbook and details how to differentiate and date various types of text found on medieval manuscripts. It explains the transition from quadrata which begins and ends with diamond shaped serifs to semi-quadtra, praescissa, and eventually rotunda in which all text is all upright and angular. This chapter shows different scripts and provides some clarification for letters that are biting and/or different than we would expect.


The fourth text is written by Kwakkel and focuses on the dating and evolution of Caroline minuscule script to gothic by examining different ‘feet’. This was a shift that he argues occurred from the 11th to 13th centuries. He explains that change most likely originated in small influential groups before becoming so widespread. He details the shift from caroline minuscule to gothic and some of its chrematistic changes including narrower letters, fusions being introduced, more angular appearance, etc. Through the analyzation of over 300 manuscripts he was able to somewhat track the progression of this change, believing it to have originated in Normandy.


Finally, the last reading for this week was by Wakelin. His article focuses on the evolution of how writing books evolved over time. He explains how time consuming the process copying manuscripts was and explained that this was carried out on top of a large number of tasks monks were expected to complete daily. He explains how at the time there was notions of what script was acceptable for certain writings. He too discusses the changes that occurred with the shift to gothic script, mainly the thick vertical lines and thin horizontal ones, as well as the introduction of biting. However, he focuses on the adoption of cursive as well. This was a practice that was adopted from the late 13th century onward and was most likely the result of wanting to improve productivity rates. Cursive allowed the monks to work faster and thus produce manuscripts cheaper. He explains that the more time consuming writing was the more important it was. Even with the introduction of cursive, works of importance often continued to be written in the more time consuming gothic script.


Some questions to consider for class:


  1. What can historians learn from the fact that different processes of the manuscript were carried out in different locations by the 13th century? Ex. The script was written and pages were sent elsewhere for images to be added.
  2. The pecia university system that allowed students to rent books in order to write their own notes functioned somewhat similarly to our library reserves system. Students could borrow books to learn from and make their own copies but were fined if they failed to return them. What can this tell us about the importance of notetaking in the medieval world? Do you think we are still learning in a similar way?
  3. Some manuscripts were illuminated with gold. This process would require the patron to pay for the metal itself and the time of a metalworker in addition to a scribe. What does this tell us about the importance placed on manuscripts in the 13th century?
  4. Some shifts in writing patterns such as caroline minuscule to gothic happened most likely, as Kwakkel mentioned, due to a small group of influential scribes making a change that spread. If it does not speed up the writing process, what is another reason this script may have caught on?

I hope you all enjoyed your reading week and I will see you in class tomorrow!