Center for Renaissance Studies to Renew Paleography Programs for Scholars | Newberry

Center for Renaissance Studies to Renew Paleography Programs for Scholars

A manuscript page from Specchio di croce, a devotional text written by Domenico Cavalca during the second quarter of the fifteenth century.

A weekend workshop in Spanish paleography convenes in the Newberry’s Special Collections Reading Room in February 2015.

November 2016

The Newberry’s Center for Renaissance Studies is set to oversee a new four-year block of classroom training in vernacular paleography. Offering participants two three- and four-week institutes each summer for the next four years, the program is made possible by a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has supported paleography instruction at the Newberry (and our partner institutions) since 2005. Over that time, the Newberry has helped over 350 scholars sharpen their script-deciphering skills, opening their research to medieval and Renaissance manuscripts that might otherwise be illegible and inaccessible to them.

“Through the Mellon Foundation’s support of previous summer institutes, an entire generation of researchers has received vital preparation that is essential to scholarship and the future of the humanities,” said Lia Markey, Director of the Newberry’s Center for Renaissance Studies. “We are now poised to train the next generation of scholars in medieval, Renaissance, and early modern studies.”

Handwriting in old manuscripts can vary from decade to decade, as well as from region to region, while falling on a wide spectrum of legibility. On one end is the elegant script of calligraphy books; on the other is the chicken scratch of notarial documents, whose sphinx-like scribbling is often compounded by the arcane abbreviations notaries tended to use.

With hands-on training in paleography, scholars acquire the skills to expand their historical inquiries to include all kinds of primary sources, including legal documents, maps, letters, devotional literature, poetry, and more.

As important as these skills are, it can be difficult to find programs that help young scholars attain them. While training in medieval Latin paleography is still available through several U.S. and Canadian universities, immersive courses in vernacular languages are extremely rare.

The summer institutes overseen by the Newberry will provide instruction in four languages: English, French, Italian, and Spanish. In addition to the Newberry, three other institutions will host classes: the Folger Shakespeare Institute, the Getty Research Institute, and the Huntington Library.

The renewal of this program builds on the success of not only the Newberry’s previous classroom offerings but also our French Renaissance Paleography website, launched in January 2016. Another Mellon-funded project, the website offers users free online access to over 100 manuscripts, along with a range of resources for reading and understanding them.