Medieval and Early Modern
IV. Topics in Paleography
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The study of the history of handwriting in manuscripts of the Medieval and Early Modern period in Europe involves the following considerations, among others:
- the history of scripts, of handwriting; "applied paleography" is the process of identifying the date and provenance of manuscript from the script
- development of distinctions between scripts for carving in rock and scripts for writing in books
- development of distinction of upper and lower cases (majuscule and minuscule characters)
- book hands vs. charter ("documentary" or "court" or "chancery") hands
- formal hands vs. informal hands
- cursive hands vs. non-cursive hands
- the use of marks of suspension and abbreviation to save space (parchment being very expensive and not to be wasted); the elaborate medieval system of "shorthand" for Latin (notae)
- development of punctuation: from medieval "pointing" for rhetorical effect (marking pauses to aid reading aloud, especially in liturgical manuscripts) to modern punctuation (from sixteenth century)
- Lettering vs. Writing: Lettering uses more than one stroke for each part of a letter, while writing uses no more than one stroke for each part of a letter. Lettering can be done, then, with chisels on stone, etc., while writing is usually done with brush or pen on a "writing surface." Paleography is primarily concerned with writing; epigraphy studies lettering.
- Script: the "idea" of a set of letters as represented in a scribe's mind.
- Hand: what the scribe actually puts down on the page.
- Canonical or Canonized Script: a standard script which is particularly well defined and regular in all of its structural features, obviously having been carefully taught and mastered.
- Cursive vs. Non-cursive hands: A non-cursive writing script has exactly one stoke for each part of a letter; a cursive script uses one stroke for several parts of a letter. In a fully cursive script, a whole line of letters would be made with one stroke of the pen or brush, but there are no scripts which are absolutely cursive or absolutely non-cursive.
- Formal vs. Informal hands: carefully and painstakingly formed as opposed to less painstakingly formed characters.
- Book hands (Literary scripts) vs. Charter hands ("Documentary" or "Court Hands"): A Book Hand is one designed to be used for works considered to be "timeless," worthy of "permanent" preservation, and so tend to be more formal, less cursive, than Charter Hands. Book hands are often characterized by their clarity and regularity, and they are often accompanied by wide margins, light punctuation, and decoration/illumination. They are leisurely and often complex, but clear and careful and often beautiful. Transcribers of books also tend to make heavy use of abbreviation. Charter Hands tend to be used for works of "temporary" interest, such as court records; they tend to be more cursive, less formal, more hurried and crabbed than Book Hands. They were used by clerks and scriveners, usually in a hurry, who sometimes cultivated idiosyncracies to make forgery more difficult: thus Documentary Hands are often very individualistic and easily identified as to time and place (and often, indeed, scribe), while Book Hands tend to be more conservative, to change little from generation to generation, and thus to be more difficult now to place precisely. Since record keepers were not concerned with economy, there is relatively little use of abbreviation in records and documents. Of course, a good medieval scribe would need to have mastered at least one Book Hand as well as one or more Charter Hands. In the later Middle Ages, both Charter Hands and Book Hands are debased forms of Caroline miniscule, the distinction between Charter and Book hand first becoming evident in the twelfth century. Charter hands get less and less "readable" as time goes on: they were bad in the thirteenth century, very bad in the fifteenth (though English Charter hands remain more readable than anything on the Continent), and practically unreadable in the sixteenth. See Johnson and Jenkinson, English Court Hand for a good introduction to Charter Hands with lots of examples.
- Glossing hand: a secondary hand used for providing glosses (commentary, translations, etc.).
- Note hand: a secondary hand used for informal annotations.
- Majuscule vs. Minuscule scripts: A majuscule script is one made of letters of equal height, with no ascenders and descenders; a modern printer's set of upper case letters is a majuscule script. A minuscule is a set of letters in which some may have ascenders and/or descenders; a modern printer's set of lower case letters is a minuscule script. Between the eighth and the twelfth centuries (largely under the influence of the Carolingian court and its heirs), there was a general movement in European literature away from majuscule bookhands to minuscule: for a time, majuscule scripts continued to be used as a particularly "formal" and "ceremonial" hand: used for headings, for special copies, for scriptural and liturgical manuscripts, and so on. By about 1200, though, majuscule scripts are no longer common.
Forward to next page: Paleography: Historical
[ 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 ]
© 1998, 2015 Stephen R. Reimer
English; University of Alberta; Edmonton, Canada
All rights reserved.
Created: 2 Dec. 1998; Last revised: 30 May 2015