Deciphering Texts

Recent Grant Brings Mellon Support of Newberry Paleography Program to $2 Million

Cronica Veneta, 15th Century
Cronica Veneta, 15th Century
February 2013

Called the archaeologists of texts, paleographers, according to Anthony Grafton, “tell us which texts were written when and what they say, which scripts were used where, and why, and by whom.” Paleographers do the detective work that makes all other research possible.

In an ongoing effort to ensure that scholars master this critical skill, the Newberry this summer will begin a four-year nationwide training program in vernacular paleography in four languages: Italian, French, Spanish, and English. In addition to the Newberry, three other U.S. institutions will host classes: the Huntington Library, the Folger Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Getty Research Institute. The program is made possible through a generous grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Held in conjunction with the rich archives of these institutions, the program is the only one of its kind in North America, and one of only a handful in the world. Literary and documentary manuscript sources held at the Newberry, Folger, Huntington, and Getty include exquisite calligraphic manuals and model books for the instruction of the elites, carefully crafted diplomatic correspondence, and notarial records in which the chicken-scratch is so illegible, and the abbreviations so enigmatic, it might be difficult at first to even identify the language.

“Students and scholars cannot read original documents or even determine their provenance and date of creation if they cannot decipher the handwriting,” Newberry President David Spadafora said. “We are grateful to the Mellon Foundation for its sustained and generous support of this crucial program.”

This is the third such series hosted by the Newberry Center for Renaissance Studies and supported by Mellon, which, with this recent grant, has now provided $2 million for the program. From 2005 to 2012, about 240 scholars attended 16 institutes; over the next four years, an additional 120 researchers will attend.

“In the past two years, I have visited about a dozen libraries and done manuscript work on the troubadours – or on French medieval poets – that I would not have been able to do had it not been for the training I received during the institute,” one student said. “In fact, much of my dissertation and intellectual orientation was made possible from training and research ideas that I picked up from the institute.”

“Researchers who lack the skill to read handwritten documents shy away from archival projects, thereby reducing the scope of their academic fields,” said Director of the Newberry Center for Renaissance Studies Carla Zecher. “Like language study, learning to read different scripts and mastering numerous abbreviations and period-specific vocabulary requires sustained, concentrated effort.”