Tackling the Archive: Unlocking Palaeography
Daniella Gonzalez | University of Kent
This is the second installment of a series on archival skills and training, designed for early researchers and enthusiasts.
One of the joys of being a medievalist is encountering a vast array of sources, from illuminated manuscripts to the medieval charter. Every single one of these contains a mystery that is just waiting to be uncovered. There has been many a time where I have felt totally enthralled by the beauty of an item or even the very fact that I can’t believe that I’m allowed to view something (I can’t begin describe just how excited I was to have Thomas Cromwell’s account book all to myself when I was at The National Archives on placement!). Part of what I love about working with medieval collections is the varying scripts that I’ve come across (I’m a particular fan of cursive scripts, especially Anglicana and later secretary hands). After having worked with these kinds of materials for a few years, I’ve developed an eye for reading these, but this has not always been the case. Learning to read these hands takes some skill and (a lot!) of practice.
Palaeography, therefore, is a vital skill set for the medievalist and early modernist. Without palaeography, we would not be able to uncover the secrets held within the archive, which are at the very core of our research. In my previous article, ‘Tackling the Archives: the PAST’, I briefly touched upon palaeography, explaining some of the exercises postgraduate students were given, and the plethora of records looked at. In this following piece, I discuss palaeography more in-depth, offering some tips and advice for postgraduates when approaching archival work.
For anyone starting postgraduate studies in Medieval and Early Modern Studies, palaeography can, at a first glance, seem like a terrifying endeavour (perhaps even more so than learning Latin!) that you will never get to grips with (there were many moments during my own MA where I thought to myself ‘I am never going to get the hang of palaeography, WHY IS THIS SO DIFFICULT?!). There are several things you can do, nevertheless, that will help you develop this skill and build up your confidence.
Reading Unfamiliar Scripts
When studying palaeography for the first time, it might feel a little like you are being thrown into the deep end. When it comes to medieval (and early modern) scripts, there will be some challenges to overcome. These include abbreviations, which are symbols that are used in place of letters or words. Common abbreviations in medieval texts include the following:
Another is archaic letterforms, such as thorns, which stood for ‘th’ and yoghs, which would have been a ‘g’ or ‘gh’.
The medievalist will also come to know the frustration of trying to work out minims, downward strokes that make up the letters ‘i’, ‘j’, ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘u’, ‘v’ and ‘w’. Usually, the context and other letters around the word assist in figuring out which is which, but this is not without its difficulties (and occasional sighs of frustration).
Palaeography is not just about learning to familiarise yourself with what different scripts look like but, also, these special letterforms, characters and symbols. The medievalist doesn’t have it easy.
Palaeography, therefore, can be really challenging at the start (and let’s be honest, there are scripts that we all look at which are just horrible!). Not to fear, there are things you can do to help yourself get used to different scripts. One of these is to read unfamiliar scripts. It is important to remember that over time, handwriting changes, meaning that the shape of letters will be different. By doing this, you will come across a variety of hands that span across centuries.
A good way to start off and grow your confidence with unfamiliar scripts is to find an example of a manuscript or archival document where both the original and transcription are available. This way, you can work through the original and then check your transcription alongside the already existing one.
There are many benefits to this. Firstly, this will help you get accustomed to a myriad of letterforms. In doing this, you will be able to identify particular letterforms and compare the ones you have already deciphered to similar letterforms across documents. The more you practice, the more you will start recognising whole words and be able to work faster through your transcription. It is an especially useful exercise to do if you are working with the same types of documents – charters are a good example of this, as they are formulaic. You will find when transcribing these types of records that the same type of phrasing is used in the same place across these types of records.
Practising like this, secondly, is also a great way to get used to the abbreviations used in medieval and early modern records. Each script will have its own peculiarities and characteristics, and in doing this type of exercise you will be able to easily spot abbreviations from a mile away. One of the most useful things that I did was make for myself a checklist/table with the standard abbreviation forms (mostly for documents written in Latin), as well as for any letters that I was repeatedly having trouble with and certain formulaic combinations that I encountered on various types of records. Having this close to hand is extremely helpful and saves a lot of time when navigating your way through a wide range of medieval and early modern records.
Thirdly, over time we all get used to the script pertaining to our own individual research areas, yet by reading documents that span across centuries, you will not only be able to work with different records for your own research but take this skill with you into your career, whether in academia or the heritage sector for example. As someone who wants to pursue a career in the archive sector, learning to read documents outside of my own research area has meant that I am able to work with diverse and wide-ranging collections. This is an important skill to have as many archives will have items that cross over many different time periods – medieval, early modern, and modern.
So far I have discussed palaeography in a way that is all about reading old scripts yet, as I have recently learned from Dr David Rundle (who gave me some ideas for this article and to whom I’m very grateful for chatting with me ahead of writing this article), palaeography has a much broader definition. Dr Rundle wrote about this in his recent book The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain, highlighting that ‘[p]alaeography is often considered an ancillary skills, a helpful addition to a scholar’s toolkit [...] with the promise that it can provide the key to unlocking seemingly impenetrable handwriting’. Yet, as Dr Rundle shows, palaeography affords the researcher an opportunity to learn much more about the records and manuscripts that they are working with, notably the item’s origins: when it was created and where.
Learning Medieval Languages
Understanding the language that your records are written in is also fundamental. This is a lesson that I learnt very early on and had the realisation that to undertake my research (or any research focusing on medieval England from the Normans to the later medieval period) I would need to learn medieval French, as well as reacquaint myself with Latin and Middle English. This is an especially important point for those of you working closely on administrative and English royal documents. Whilst many records you will come across in your research will be in Latin, such as Coram Rege Rolls and other types of legal documents, you will come across many written in French – in my case, several of the civic records I examined, like proclamations copied into London Letter Book H and letters preserved within the Plea and Memoranda Rolls (records held at London Metropolitan Archives for those of you interested), and records relating to Parliament, such as petitions, were in French.
When I first started my PhD, I found that not being familiar with a certain language was a bit of a barrier when trying to read the documents I was examining. I remember many an afternoon feeling exasperated by this and wanting to give up. This frustration, however, did not last forever and taking classes, in medieval French and Latin for example, really helped me to start recognising words and phrases – I was even able to start working out the abbreviations a lot faster than I had (Einhorn’s Concise French: A Handbook was one of the best tools I had for this!). Trust me, gaining language skills early on in your PhD is an invaluable skill that sits extremely well alongside palaeography.
What To Do When Stuck!
A big part of building up your confidence is learning from others, especially when you find yourself stuck and unsure of what else to do next. There were usually two things I turned to when I was feeling this way. First, take a step back from your transcription and the document. There is nothing worse than painstakingly staring at your screen in the hopes that if you look at it for long enough, the word that you are trying to figure out will suddenly be clear and you can move on to the next word. The best thing to do is, as you go through the document in front of you/on your laptop screen, to write down the words that you can get and leave those you are struggling with to the very end or for later in the day/another day. You will find it is far more helpful to take time away from the screen and go for a walk/watch TV/make a cup of tea and have some biscuits (this third option was always my go-to and still is!) to recharge your batteries and have some clarity to return to your transcription with. Whilst this may seem like a very simple thing to do, it did absolute wonders for me when I was tired and stressed out after trying to work out a single word.
Second, ask for help. This is perhaps one of the best things I did throughout my PhD (even on the final few weeks on the run-up to submission – take it from me, do not leave checking your transcriptions to the very end!). The people around you are some of the best resources that you can use, especially if you are using some earlier or later documents than the period that is the main focus of your thesis. As a medievalist, many of the records that I used dated from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries but sometimes had notes that were clearly written by an early modern hand. This is when speaking to the early modernists around me was a total lifesaver! I would also recommend going to palaeography classes hosted by your Department/Centre. These were sessions that I always enjoyed and learnt so much from. It was a great way to not only receive advice from my erudite colleagues – especially Dr Rundle – but to learn from my peers about the types of records they were working with; not only did I gain extra palaeographic skills but I learnt a lot about the way that distinctive records were produced, why they were created and the amazing research that my colleagues were doing!
Personally, I find that Twitter is one of the best places to get advice and suggestions when faced with palaeographic questions and conundrums. There have been (and continue to be) many times when I have turned to the amazing virtual community of medievalists and early modernists on Twitter for help. The best thing to do is give some context, supply a photo and ask away!
 David Rundle, The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain: The English Quattrocento (Cambridge University Press 2019), p. 3.
There are some excellent resources to help students navigate the mysteries of palaeography. Below are some of my recommendations:
Michelle P. Brown, A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 (British Library & Toronto University Press: London & Toronto, 1990; rev. ed. 1994; 1999)
Michelle P. Brown, Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Glossary of Technical Terms (British Library and J. Paul Getty Museum: London & Malibu, 1994)
Michelle P. Brown, The British Library Guide to Writing and Scripts: History and Techniques (British Library & Toronto University Press: London & Toronto, 1998)
C. R. Cheney ed. and M. Jones rev., A Handbook of Dates for Students of British History 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)
Albert Derolez, The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books: From the Twelfth to the Early Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)
Mark Forrest, Reading Early Handwriting 1500-1700 (British Association for Local History: 2019)
Sir Hilary Jenkinson, Palaeography and the Practical Study of Court Hand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915)
Charles Johnson and Sir Hilary Jenkinson, English court hand, A.D. 1066 to 1500: illustrated chiefly from the public records (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1915). You can find this online here.
Hilary Marshall, Palaeography for Family and Local Historians (Phillimore & Co: 2010)
Scot McKendrick, John Lowden, and Kathleen Doyle ed., Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (London: The British Library, 2011)
M. B. Parkes, English cursive book hands, 1250-1500 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969)
Samuel Harrison Thomson, Latin bookhands of the later Middle ages, 1100-1500 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1969)
The Manuscript Studies page on MEMSLib, created by Dr David Rundle (University of Kent) and Dr Alison Ray (Canterbury Cathedral Archives), has an entire section dedicated to palaeography, which contains a comprehensive list of a variety of online resources. This list contains all of the online resources (and many more!) that I have used to date when needing extra help understanding palaeography.
Dr Daniella Marie Gonzalez is a Cataloguer on the Prepare & Move Project at the Parliamentary Archives. She is also the Social Media Fellow for the British Association for Local History, Communications Officer for ARA’s Section for New Professionals and Co-founder and Editor of MEMSLib. She completed her PhD at the University of Kent in 2020 and researches the history of medieval London, focusing particularly on political language and civic records. Dr Gonzalez is currently undertaking a qualification in Archive Administration from Aberystwyth University and is pursuing a career as an Archivist.