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!

Week 5 discussion- Writing Supports

Hi everyone, I am so sorry that this is so late…. Full disclosure, I completely forgot that we are supposed to make blog posts after we lead seminar discussions (I actually forgot we had this blog in the first place because we have approximately 6000 different websites associated with this class and I am truly ScatterBrained. I only remembered when I saw Lynsay’s post, thanks girl) Sorry everyone!!

Leading seminar last week was a little fun, and very scary. For those who missed class, Marc invited two impressive strangers to listen in, which was so intimidating and super awful for me. Professor Nelles also came in to talk about grad school, and you can find that info on slack/culearn/email/one of the other thousand interfaces we have. We discussed writing supports, also known as the things used to write stuff on. Our discussion was predominantly driven by the chapter reading and Saenger’s article about silent reading in the Middle Ages.  We distinguished two “types” of writing supports during discussion- the Ps (papyrus, parchment, and paper) and the others mentioned in chapter 1 (metal, wax, wood, etc).

The Ps are the most recognizable/ “normal” writing supports to our modern brains, since paper has survived as the most popular form (until now, as we are experiencing a shift towards digital writing supports). The two categories are mostly discrete since parchment and paper was used for different things than wax and metal. In general, parchment and paper were  liked for its longevity and association with important information, whereas the others were used for more temporary or portable work. Wax was notable for its erasability. We considered why parchment became the most widely used writing support in the MA. Parchment offered a permanence that other writing supports couldn’t, and most notably it could be made into a codex, which became the ultimate vessel for writing and recording information in the Middle Ages. Parchment also provided the right colour and texture for writing and drawing.

Saenger’s article was not directly about writing supports, but rather the culture around writing and reading in the Middle Ages. The article covered a huge amount of time and space, from the Roman Empire up until the Early Modern period, which was in an effort to demonstrate how there was a distinct change from reading aloud to reading silently. Writing in the dominantly oral reading culture of Rome was practiced as per cola et commata, which means that the scribe would write in a way that was designed to be read aloud in (syllabic phrases rather than words). The rise of vernacular language in the Middle Ages meant that people no longer spoke Latin, and therefore could not read by phrases in the Roman tradition. The incorporation of spaces between words made reading silently possible.

Finally, I wanted us to consider how digitizing medieval writing supports can be challenging, since the information we gather from them is often hard to impart through the interwebs. For example, it is distinctly difficult to describe with words the sound that a particularly thick sheet of parchment makes when you wiggle it. Digitizing these sources usually means pictures, which adds a level of removal from the source.  However, there are also upsides, like new and exciting access to sources that may have been inaccessible before digitization.

Preparation for Leading a Seminar

This week I got to dabble in the art of “leading a seminar”. Perhaps in the medieval times we would have had wine to enhance this conversation… (I actually know quite little about medieval history so if that is inaccurate I apologize – this perhaps will be my tragic flaw but only time will reveal that). My knowledge does however extend to seminar leading and Github.

This week we looked at open source notebooks, their implications, barriers and how we can directly apply this to our class. I decided to put together some tips for others leading a seminar on things that I did that I found useful and useless.


– Do the readings twice. Read them the first time to make notes and raise questions (as if you were not leading the seminar). The second time around, read them and think about what material left you with unanswered questions. Or think about how to relate the article to that week’s discussion.
– Review the readings once again prior to the lecture. I did the readings a week in advance and had to review them the morning of to make sure I remembered everything.
– Take notes on Hypothesis. Hypothesis (although can be horrible) has it perks – my personal favourite is that I will never lose my notes. As well when others are doing the readings they can see what you are thinking about. As well, if you highlight the important parts then people are more likely to read those sections.
– Create your broad questions for discussion and post those. Then on your own time, make questions that are “lead-offs’. These are questions for when nobody responds, you can ask this question and perhaps it will trigger their minds to think about the topic differently.
– Answer your own questions. Not everybody will be talkative so make sure to bring your own ideas to the table.


– Making more than 5 broad questions. More often than not, you will find yourselves deep into conversation therefore creating more questions than necessary isn’t always the best. (I mean the ones you post, not the specific lead-off ones).
– Doing all the work. You want to make sure that you are not the only doing the readings for the week. You are definitely leading the seminar and making sure there are no silences but you want to make sure everyone isn’t piggybacking off of you. After all, we are working as a team.

I personally really enjoyed leading a seminar. I tried to ask questions that I knew would A) stir the pot and get discussion going and B) that would get people thinking. A lot of the questions that I asked were designed to have many different view points and answers. I wanted to make sure that I was limiting my own bias and allowing people to have a space for their own opinions. I think a topic like open source notebooks is hard because there are not really any right or wrong answers to this topic. It is still something that we are learning about even now. It will be definitely interesting to see how are topics evolve as we get further into our own projects and into the class.

Preparing for Week 2.

Our experiment has begun! Our Digitizing Medieval Manuscripts class met for the first time on September 10th and we got to know a bit about the fourteen of us. The students are mostly history students, but come from a wide range of backgrounds and preparations. I am super excited to be working with what looks like a super engaged group! From the constant notifications I’m getting from the various online resources we’ve set up on many different platforms, it’s clear that students are jumping right into the thick of things.

This week I want everyone to explore a bit. Instead of rushing to put up a profile, all should take a look at other profiles to see how others craft an image of themselves (e.g. their academic selves) online. If you want to see how others have theorized about online identity creation, take a look at the Pearson article in this week’s readings. Likewise, even if you’re already a Twitter aficionado, spend a few minutes each day reading through the twitter feed of the book history types to see how they write, discuss and interact with others. There is an element of both fun and seriousness in their endeavour, at times trying to entertain or amuse and other times to educate and advise. Your experience signing up for and exploring these two online spaces will provide the “primary source” of our discussion.

  1. For class on September 17th, try to identify one person on #medievaltwitter who has impressed you and be able to make explicit what about their style/ content resonated with you. Try also to find a profile on that helped you to understand its purpose.
  2. I find the twitter account @siwaratrikalpa particularly instructive about how #medievaltwitter can work. It is an officially anonymous feed, and students should read the explanation of their self-definition to understand why they remains anonymous and how/why they tweet about their research in the way they do. Ask yourself, for @siwaratrikalpa what is the point of twitter?
  3. Our readings this week ask us to reflect more generally on how academics (a catch-all term to describe professors, heritage experts, advanced degree students…) engage publicly on social media.
  4. Jesse Strommel’s post provides a strategy for how to develop a following. What is the key strategy he suggests? And if you were trying to build a following, what steps should you take on Twitter to be a good citizen and a follow-worthy tweeter.
  5. The “Manuscript the Tube” blog post from the British Library shows one successful way in which a large public heritage institution interacted with a large public (though largely academic). The goal was to be playful but also to get people using the digitized collection. What does this example show about social media use? What was successful and what not?
  6. Sarah Werner’s post (and please listen to her talk linked at the beginning of the post) dissects what not to do (i.e. what to do) in trying to increase public engagement with special collections. Figure out what you should take away from her ideas to craft your own strategy if you were a special collections curator.
  7. The two articles by Ricoy & Feliz and Pearson are more academic/ anthropological in their genre. Ricoy and Feliz are focussed on what makes Twitter useful for learning and what can make it problematic. Figure out what you should be doing to make the best pedagogical use of Twitter. With Pearson’s article, consider how being online allows choices in identity creation, and identify the advantages/ disadvantages of the “performing” identity on an online environment.

Good luck to all the students in getting prepared. I’m looking forward to an exciting discussion!