Paleography, according to the OED, is “the science or art of deciphering and interpreting historical manuscripts and writing systems.” Old scripts can be very beautiful, but sometimes difficult to read. We cannot read historical manuscript books and documents or even determine their provenance and date of creation if we cannot decipher the handwriting. Reading and understanding manuscripts requires knowledge not only of letterforms but also of languages, spelling systems, and the social, cultural, and institutional settings in which writing was used. Learning to read different scripts and mastering numerous abbreviations and period-specific vocabulary requires sustained, concentrated effort. Even scholars with previous experience report a need to practice and refresh their skills before each successive venture into the archives.
In fall 2013 The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded the Newberry Library a grant to support the development of a website for French Renaissance paleography. The project, now well underway, is a collaboration of four partners: the Newberry Center for Renaissance Studies, Iter: Gateway to the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the University of Toronto Libraries Information Technology Services, and the Center for Digital Humanities at Saint Louis University. The site will provide integrated access to an archive of historically significant, visually captivating manuscript documents written in various forms of the French language, dating from 1400 to 1650.
The core constituencies of users will likely be graduate students, professors, and independent scholars who wish to acquire paleographic training, but we also intend the site to be useful to advanced undergraduates studying French civilization; museum and library curators, archivists, and catalogers who work with French manuscripts; and calligraphers, design historians, and graphic designers interested in Renaissance scripts and decorative practices. Users will be able to practice reading late medieval and Renaissance French scripts, learn about the history of those handwriting styles and the circumstances of production of different types of manuscript documents, receive an introduction to paleography as an academic field, and engage in online discussions and collaborative research.
We are spotlighting the years 1400 to 1650 because this is a period for which the European vernacular handwritings are particularly difficult to read. 1400 marks the birth of the humanistic minuscule and cursive hands in Italy, which came to dominate the European scene by the middle of the seventeenth century. Manuscript sources from these two and a half centuries range from family papers, diaries, and poetry to parish registers, legal records, and handwriting manuals. On one end of the spectrum, we find exquisitely executed calligraphic manuscript books intended for the instruction of the upper classes. On the other end, we encounter notarial records, stuffed into burlap sacks or bound with printer’s waste, in which the chicken-scratching is so illegible and the text so laden with abbreviations, one is hard-pressed, at first glance, to tell whether the document is written in French, Italian, Latin, or some combination of all three.
The site will include four major components: a web hub with an image viewer, a state-of-the art transcription tool, a set of reference resources, and a community tools area. Three types of primary source materials will be included: manuscript documents, calligraphy books and handwriting manuals, and historical maps. Users will be able to browse through these materials and sort them into useful categories, practice transcribing the documents, and compare sections of their own transcriptions with transcription keys. The resources will include reference tools for paleography and “about” pages to introduce various aspects of manuscript studies. The community tools section will provide a place for collaborative work, where groups can practice completing transcriptions, post images for discussion, and make annotations about the materials in the site or other related materials.
We look forward to unveiling our pilot project in January 2016!