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Manuscript Studies
Medieval and Early Modern

IV.vi. Paleography: Scribal Abbreviations

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One of the most important skills which any student of medieval manuscripts and early printed books must develop is an understanding of the abbreviations which are common in these texts. Partly because of the expense of parchment, partly to achieve efficiencies in the labour of copying, perhaps partly to reduce the size of books which needed to be stored, scribes developed for Latin texts an elaborate system of abbreviating words and for replacing some especially common words (or common, formulaic phrases) with shorthand symbols. These abbreviations were such an established part of transcribing and reading Latin for so long that the system was carried over wholesale into early printed books, and fifteenth- and sixteenth-century printed Latin texts present the same challenges as medieval Latin manuscripts. Abbreviations are also used in copying vernacular texts, but to nowhere near the same elaborate complexity as the system developed for transcribing Latin.

Furthermore, this system of writing Latin in abbreviated form had, by the end of the Middle Ages, been developing over the course of a millenium, which partly explains the degree of its elaboration. One of Cicero's amanuenses, by the name of Tiro, invented a complete system of shorthand for recording Cicero's speeches as he delivered them, and one of the Tironian "notae" (his symbol for "et") continued in use throughout the Middle Ages (more on this below). Traube claimed that he could date a manuscript based on the system of abbreviation alone; studying the abbreviations can also help in locating a manuscript. Cappelli offers a dictionary of about 14,000 marks, and even it is far from complete, for his work is almost exclusively based upon Italian manuscripts (further, his dates are not reliable, especially for other parts of Europe), but the listing is convenient and helpful. There is now a computer program available ("Abbreviationes," for Macintosh computers) which presents the whole of Cappelli's dictionary and several others in a computer searchable database. For dating purposes, one should consult the technical works of Traube, Lindsay, Bains, Paap, and the new series of catalogues of "dated and datable" manuscripts (keeping in mind, though, that systems of abbreviation never actually "die out" completely, so attempts at dating are more secure on the side of the terminus ante quem non). Note also that the shapes of Arabic numerals are also useful in dating a manuscript.

Manuscript abbreviations are of basically two types: marks to indicate missing letters (suspensions) and marks which represent a whole word ("notae," such as in Tiro's shorthand system). A few of the most common of the thousands of symbols (especially ones which are common in both Latin and vernacular manuscripts) are described here; for a fuller sense of what can be involved, take a glance through Adriano Cappelli's Lexicon abbreviaturarum: Dizionario di abbreviature latine ed italiane, 6th ed. (Milan: Ulrico Hoepli, 1979).


Suspension marks

The two most common (and most variable) marks are a macron above a letter or an apostrophe-like curl after or part of a letter; both can mean "some letters are missing" (though in late medieval manuscripts the apostrophe-like mark is frequently otiose: purely decorative, without significance). The macron most frequently indicates a missing m or n; the apostrophe most frequently indicates a terminal us.

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[ Course Notes: Introduction ] | [ I. Towards a definition of "manuscript studies" ] | [ I.ii. The four branches of bibliographical study ] | [ I.iii. Topics in the social history of texts ] | I.iii.a The "Rescue" of Medieval Manuscripts from Grocers and Fishmongers | [ II. Diplomatics ] | [ III. Codicology ] | [ III.ii. Decoration and Illumination ] | [ IV. Paleography ] | [ IV.ii. Historical Notes ] | [ IV.iii. Writing Implements ] | [ IV.iv. Letter Formation ] | [ IV.v. Special Characters in English Manuscripts ] | [ IV.vi. Scribal Abbreviations ] | [ IV.vii. Punctuation ] | [ IV.viii. Paleographical sample: William Herebert, OFM (early fourteenth-century England) ] | [ Herebert sample, with transcription ] | [ Herebert sample: enlargement of full page reproduced at high resolution ] | [ V. Textual analysis (James E. Thorpe) ] | [ V.ii. Scribal error ] | [ V.iii. Kinds of edition ] | [ V.iv. Examples of over emendation on insufficient grounds ] | [ VI. Linguistic competence (an example): An Outline History of the English Language ] | [ VII. Libraries and archives: ] | [ VII.ii. British Library Manuscript Collections ] | [ VII.iii. Bodleian Library Manuscript Collections ]

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© 1998, 2015 Stephen R. Reimer
English; University of Alberta; Edmonton, Canada
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Created: 2 Dec. 1998; Last revised: 30 May 2015

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