French Renaissance Paleography Site Transcends Limits of One Classroom, One Collection | Newberry

French Renaissance Paleography Site Transcends Limits of One Classroom, One Collection

Detail of Censier du seizième siècle pour la paroisse de Payns, bailliage de Troyes, 1579. VAULT Case oversize MS 5078.

January 2016

The Newberry is pleased to announce the launch of French Renaissance Paleography, a website where scholars and students can practice transcribing a carefully curated selection of over 100 manuscripts dating from 1300 - 1700. Paleography, the study of handwriting, prompts scholarly investigations into the details of medieval and early modern life that were recorded by hand rather than printing press. The manuscripts on the French Renaissance Paleography site document colonial administration, legal activity, artistic expression, and other elements of society, culture, and governance in France and New France. The website is supported by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“This new website is founded on the idea that scholars may expand their scope of research—and, as a consequence, their discovery of the past—when they are provided with tools for deciphering historical manuscripts,” said Newberry President David Spadafora. “We are grateful to have collaborated with several exceptional institutions in building a digital resource that transcends the boundaries of any one classroom or collection.”

Curated mostly from the Newberry collection but also from the collections of such institutions as the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Huntington Library, and the Morgan Library & Museum, the digitized manuscripts available on the French Renaissance Paleography site represent a range of different genres: legal documents, calligraphy books, maps, letters, devotional literature, poetry, and more. The collaborative spirit extended to the implementation of the website as well. French Renaissance Paleography is the result of a partnership between the Newberry, the University of Toronto Libraries, the Center for Digital Humanities at Saint Louis University, and ITER: Gateway to the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Carla Zecher, director of the Newberry’s Center for Renaissance Studies during the conception of the project and much of its execution, led the French Renaissance Paleography team.

“French Renaissance Paleography extends into the digital realm the Newberry’s rich experience offering intensive classroom-based instruction in late medieval and Renaissance vernacular paleography,” said Zecher, who is now the executive director of the Renaissance Society of America. “Drawing on the library’s expertise with that face-to-face educational format, we’ve created a digital resource that will bring the study of early French manuscript culture to a much larger audience than we could have previously accommodated.”

The result is a user experience that combines the support of a classroom environment with the freedom to navigate the available materials at a self-determined pace. As users begin their transcribing or encounter texts that are especially difficult to read, they may consult dictionaries, glossaries, guides to French scripts and hands, contextual essays, and other resources—all from within French Renaissance Paleography.

At the heart of French Renaissance Paleography, however, is a customized version of the T-PEN transcription tool developed by Saint Louis University’s Center for Digital Humanities. The T-PEN tool parses the manuscripts line by line so that readers can home in on every diacritical and calligraphic flourish over the course of gleaning fresh insights from the handwritten traces of history that don’t always receive as much critical attention as they deserve.