Palaeography or, What you can learn from a manuscript without understanding a word of Latin!

This post was originally written during my MPhil year, for the Queens’ College Old Library Blog. I appreciate all the support Tim, Lindsey and my co-volunteers provided. 

I’m writing this, my first blog post on Medieval Manuscripts, in a word processor before it gets uploaded. This means that, alongside being able to save it, edit it and do such useful things as checking it is about the right length, I can change how the post looks at the touch of a button. Changing font is second nature to us, but in the Medieval world, changes in script (as hand written fonts are known) help us to learn a lot about when, where and why something was written.

The freedom computers afford is a very recent innovation. None of my grandparents ever owned a computer and when my parents were students, they paid people to type up dissertations on typewriters. Typewriters, (though relatively portable!), differ little from even early printing presses – they stamp ink onto paper using a single set of letter stamps. Before the invention of the printing press in the middle of the 15th century, everything was hand written. Hundreds of thousands of books were written out by monks and professional scribes – hence manuscript, literally ‘written by hand’. The Old Library here has some 30 handwritten books from before the invention of the printing press (a book, or, to use a technical term, codex, being far more likely to survive the ravages of time than a loose sheet), while other collections in Cambridge house many more .

Queens’ College Old Library

Such production was no mean feat – simply copying a pre-existing text might take weeks, (not counting the time taken to prepare parchment from animal skins, or to illustrate or bind the pages). Composing a major work could take a lifetime; the Historia Novella of William of Malmesbury breaks off unexpectedly in 1142, although William had promised to continue the History – apparently he died before he could make good on his promise.

Unsurprisingly, books were highly valued, and great care was taken in making them look the part. Above all, that meant having consistent, neat handwriting. If I had to hand-write my thesis, it would probably look very disappointing. Luckily, in the Middle Ages, handwriting was formally taught; most people were illiterate, and even those who could read were not necessarily able to write. Those who could write would have been taught how to form letters in a specific style and would also learn the many abbreviations used to save time and space. These letter shapes and features together make a script. Over time, the scripts in use changed. Just as Arial looks very different to Times New Roman, so scripts from different periods vary.

For example, an eleventh or twelfth century copy of Caesar’s account of the Gallic War (D.20.54), looks very different from a fifteenth century text of William of Ockham (F.10.15):

OL D.20.54 – an early 12th century copy of Ceasar’s De Bello Gallico
OL F.10.15 – MS pastedown of William of Ockham from Queens’ Old Library












As you can see, the two scripts used look completely different. Hardly surprising, given they were written some four centuries apart. Handwriting changed gradually over hundreds of years, which means it is possible to identify the time a manuscript was produced at a glance. With practice, you can even tell where a manuscript comes from; these two examples are probably English, but their scripts were in use, with slight differences, across western Europe.

Not only did the general look of the scripts change, so too did some of the letter shapes. The straight s – ſ – was a letter form which developed in the early middle ages, but gave way to the curved s after the twelfth century. Similarly, the font I am using now has a’s which have a bent back shaft, whereas when most people today write a’s, they don’t add this. This ‘two compartment’ a is another later medieval letter form. Others include g with a closed tail, as seen here, or d with a shaft bending back on itself. These shafts are called ‘ascenders’ – the bit above the height of most letters, seen in l, d, or b, while y, g, p and q have ‘descenders’.

OL D.20.54 (detail) – an example of early twelfth century letter forms. note the straight ‘s’ and &

Abbreviations could change too; for example, several changes in abbreviations and letters occurred around the middle of the twelfth century which help date scripts within that century. First of all, ę (an abbreviation for ‘ae’), stopped being used. Instead e was used, confusing generations of Latin scholars. Around the same time, & (which began life as a way of joining the letters e and t), was replaced with ‘⁊’.

OL G.13.14 – an example of a thirteenth century Gothic Script. Compare the ‘a’ letters and curved ‘s’.

All of these letter forms and abbreviations help us work out when a script was written, but changes were not abrupt. A scribe might experiment with changing one small part of a script, perhaps whether his d’s had ‘ascenders’ which curved backwards, or whether he wrote et as & or ⁊, whilst keeping everything else the same. This means that dating a script is never an exact science. Instead, palaeographers give a best estimate for a script, based on other dated scripts. So, in the twelfth century, if a script had no ę’s or &’s, it probably came from the later half of the century, but it could be that a particular scribe was especially experimental!

Different scripts also had different purposes. Changes in a script might be motivated by a desire to make a text more legible; this was was motivated the development of Caroline Minuscule, in use (with variation) between the 9th and 11th centuries. Other developments were inspired by the desire to save time and space, or simply to make texts look better, as in the case of the developments which led Caroline minuscule to develop across the twelfth century through ‘Transitional’ hands into ‘Textualis’. Some Late Medieval scripts are so stylistically focused that they can be very hard to read.

BL MS Horne 25 – an example of late medieval Littera Textualis Quadrata, where legibility is sacrificed for style

The script also had to be suitable for the text – some scripts were seen as too informal for biblical texts for example. How a text looks can also tell us about its intended purpose. Was it a prestige item, a coffee table book designed to show off the owner’s wealth, such as the 8th century Lindisfarne Gospels or 12th century Trinity Apocalypse, or was it a cheap, low quality book with lots of marginal notes (or glosses), designed to be used by a student at one of the medieval universities, such as Cambridge?

Anyone can look at a medieval book, and get a good idea of when the book was produced, and what kind of purpose it might have, all before ever having to think about the Latin! Not bad going!

OL C.13.16 – an example of a glossed text, likely for study. The main script is a Gothic hand, while the glosses are a more rapid cursive.

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