Paleography Students' First Weeks of Training: Strategies to Adapt Minds/Brains to New Shapes of Meaning

           Paleography, the study of old writing, is a course-within-the-course.  More than that, it’s a course like a marathon route is a course, physically and mentally.  Our goal is to enable you to adapt your perception of documents and letter forms in order to read varying handwritten texts from previous centuries.  The process takes weeks, but if you persist in practicing, exposing your mind/brain to a given old manuscript until it begins to make sense, you will literally have changed your mind by changing your brain.  Not since you first learned to read have you done anything this difficult or rewarding.  It opens the door to a universe of ancient wisdom and curious facts that are contained within manuscripts (conventionally abbreviated "MSS," or "MS" for one manuscript as in MS Cotton Nero A.x.")

Reading vs. Seeing the Text

            Paleography students must harness their brains' “neuroplasticity,” the capacity to adjust how the brain interprets shapes, and for some purposes (manuscript rubrication and illumination) colors, materials, etc.  When we're young, our brains are very "neuroplastic," able to adapt to whatever script our culture's literature is written in.  Chinese babies learn Chinese characters as easily as British and American babies learn the English alphabet, and if one is lucky enough to be taught multiple languages while one is still very young, one can easily master multiple systems of linguistic signs.  Now that we are all older, our brains have become somewhat resistant to remapping their networks linking visual shapes to sounds and significance, but with time and patient effort we can overcome that.  Whether it’s a medieval Christian Latin-writing scribe’s Gothic Textura Quadrata or a Jewish Greek-writing scribe’s script, you have to live with it, returning again and again to the task of making sense of it, until your brain relaxes and stops looking for shapes like the letters I’m typing and you’re reading, which are purely and bizarrely conventional, not natural.  Gradually, you will start looking for the shapes that mean things in that particular document.  So our first strategy is, practice, practice, practice.  Be patient.  Expect your brain to not work at first, at least until you get really experienced reading a wide range of documents, and even then you will find some that stump you.  Always be ready to go back to square one and practice.  And in all cases, do not expect to be able “to read” the MS until your brain has become very attuned to seeing the script.

Paleography's First Stage Is Code-Breaking

            Instead of “reading” at this early stage of paleographic training, imagine you are code-breaking.  That process requires you to go back and forth between very finely observed attention to individual pen strokes that make up characters, and the characters that make up syllables and words.  Once you have figured out some syllables and words, you have to move between that level of seeing and attempt to achieve a large-scale, “global” grasp of the document itself.  The global grasp of the document’s function is crucial.  What the heck is it DOING?  Is it a private note, a personal communication between two people, a proclamation or public record of some kind, or an inscription on a painting, pot, or tapestry?  That will determine how formally it is structured.  Then you will start noticing its “paratextual” apparatus, the stuff that enables us to read rather than just see a text.  Line breaks, word breaks, should not be taken for granted.  The oldest surviving Latin script (Capitalis Quadrata) has neither and is all capital letters, like monument inscriptions but all run together in what Paul Needham calls “the text string” that the ear hears as a continuous stream of meaning but the eye must reconstruct.  Saying the text out loud can help a lot with that transition.  But back to paratext, since most surviving old documents do separate words and indicate beginnings and ends of major grammatical units of meaning.  Does the document have parts or is the text continuous?  Does it punctuate or cantillate or inflect its word and sentence units?  Knowing that can help you keep from making huge blunders about the small stuff (is that a dot over an “i” or is it a punctuation mark indicating a logical pause to group a dependent clause?). 

Use <<??>> to Represent Currently Unknown Text when Beginning Transcriptions

            Knowing how the pen strokes make meaning in that other way helps you assemble known units of the text as little “islands” amid the unknown parts.  When you are just beginning your attempt to transcribe an unknown text into your own, known, version, represent the unknown parts by lines and question marks and angle-brackets (French quotes) to demarcate the approximate size of the yet-to-be-deciphered text, like this: “Jehon Grey of Coggeshill, do ?------------------------? Barthlomeo Crimm<<innini??>>” etc.  (That’s actually part of what I think I have done on part of that 1640-ish MS.)  When you go back and forth between the actual MS and your emerging deciphered text, gradually your brain’s global sense of meaning-making will start to work with the minutely focused sense of meaning-making.  You’ll recognize that when parts of the text that had been unreadable suddenly “snap into intelligibility,” an almost audible mental “aha!” that your brain makes when it re-cognizes (re-thinks/sees) a pattern it has struggled with.  It’s sometimes called “gestalt.”  

Numbers Are Easier to Decode than Words (Unless they ARE in Words)

            The next tip is to look for obvious “signifiers” (remember your Ferdinand de Saussure’s “structuralist linguistics”) that you know are likely to be simple, repeated, and unambiguously significant.  Numbers are a good bet for Latin—the good old Roman numeral system will carry you through, even though some medieval scribal conventions are no longer followed.  Most importantly, the Roman “4” is usually taught in modern schools as “iv,” but in medieval Latin MSS it’s always “iiij.”  Unfortunately for modern paleographers, Early Modern and Medieval scribes often wrote out dates as words, so 1603 might appear as "one thousand six hundred & three."  Early English documents also might be dated by the year of the current sovereign's reign, which begins not on Easter (standard start of the Medieval Christian year) or January 1, as in modern documents, but on the day the sovereign was crowned, which changes from ruler to ruler.  Tables of "reignal years" are available to help decode that.  Until the Protestant Reformation came to England, scribes also dated documents by saints' feast days, and tables of those memorials also are available.  Fortunately for modern paleographers, very careful scribes often dated documents both ways, as when Robert Corn dictated his last will and testament "In the name of god, Amen, the thorsday Befor the feste of seint laurence, the ȝer of the incarnacion of our lord, Millesimo CCCmo lxxxvij, the reyne of the kynge Richard the Secund̛ after the conquest the x."  So at least in MSS that count things, look for numbers early on in the process.

Alphabets Change Over Time

            What was Corn trying to say when the scribe wrote "ȝer"?  That first character, a "yough," has fallen out of use, but when it occurs at the start of a word it sounds like "y" and when in the middle, like "ough."  So that's "year," of course, as you may have recovered from context.  Why “j” at the end of lxxxvij?  It’s easier to count the “i” strokes if your eye can group them with a definitive last stroke.  That’s how I believe the “j” entered the Roman alphabet, which had no “j,” “u,” or “w” until very late in the C17, or C18 for some conservative writers.  I can write “orange iuce” and if you say it out loud you’ll hear “orange juice” (or “Iulivs Caesar”?).  Seeing “covrt” and hearing “court” is a little tougher but only because we’ve lived with those slacker “u” characters for so long instead of using their snappier “v” predecessors.  Getting from “uu” to “w” is a piece of cake, by comparison, and you can still hear the “double-u” in the letter’s name.  Saussure's claim that sign systems are always, imperceptibly changing, means that such changes will occur in other languages, such as the famous “v” for “b” substitution in Greek.  The square named for English Helenophile nobleman whom the Greeks treat as a poet-hero, George Gordon, Lord Byron, is “Vironis” not “Byron’s” squre.  Similarly, the ancient orphan sanctuary of today called “Brouron” was known to C5 BCE Athenians as “Vrouron.”  (There is a great museum there—little ancient kiddy toys, like a horse on wheels that may have been pulled by an ancient Greek kid who might have been able to understand Homer better than most of us can.)  This complexity comes with an unexpected benefit!  Once you have learned a given language's alphabetical history, you can roughly date otherwise undated manuscripts by the now-extinct or newly invented letter forms they use.

When You Reach the Word-Reading Stage, Look for Repeating Types of Words

            You probably have forgotten that when you first learned to read, you were taught to read types of words in groups based on their functions.  Remember your grammar.  English, most Romance, Germanic, and Scandinavian languages, together with Greek and Latin, have nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and articles.

            In Latin, Romance- or Germanic-language, and English manuscripts, the prepositions, conjunctions and articles are usually the next most easy to learn to spotBecause they are frequently used in normal writing, solving them fills in a lot of those blanks or at least sets you up for what should be in the blanks Noun phrases (in those languages I’m used to working with) often follow articles and prepositions, though watch out for infinitives in English ("to learn to spot" above). 

            Proper names are great if you can find them.  In the 1640-era sewing guards illustrated by the "John Grey of Coggshill" hyperlink above, “london” shows up more than once.  (Don’t expect capitalization to normalize until the modern era.)  Because scribal English and Latin were often written phonetically to correspond to the scribe’s regional dialect, one must adjust—saying it aloud can help break through.  For instance, Thomas Earskine, Earl of Kellie, wrote to a Scots friend that James I's sudden illness in March of 1624 "did frycht us all" (frightened us all) and that James "was a seeke man and worse then I love to wret" (a sick man and worse than I love to write [Alastair Bellany and Thomas Cogswell, The Murder of King James I, New Haven: Yale UP, 2015, p. xxiv].)  The neat thing is that the regional dialect can help localize where the scribe was from, and sometimes can even give clues to where the MS was originally produced (e.g., if more than one scribal hand is present and both/all use the same regional dialect).  Again, in highly formal religious or legal documents, most obviously in Latin, scribal dialect may standardized, but it often appears in vernacular and informal documents.

            Even common nouns are little flecks of golden meaning in the heap of unintelligible dross.  They tend to repeat because things that scribes bothered to write down tend to be “about something,” as opposed to a shout in the street.  Again, the names for things can be obscure but a good dictionary usually will set you straight.  In our C17 English indentures, which are mostly about real estate, the term “messuage” confuses novice readers (“message”???) until somebody looks it up and discovers it means a property with all the buildings and other structures upon it (wells, pastures, outbuildings, not just the main house).  Again, that also is easier to figure out if you know what the heck the document is DOING (see above). 

Scribes Abbreviate, Just as We Do

            Finally, scribes are hard workers, but they do not like to waste time and energy and ink, so they abbreviate.  Sometimes it just helps them make efficient use of a line or page of parchment, which was expensive.  This would be true for scribes in any language, though a scribe writing a sacred text (Torah, Bible) may have some severe restrictions that are not shared by others.  Even in Bibles, psalters and other Latin service books, one grows used to seeing the divine name written “Do” where the “o” has a bar over it (can’t find it in my Unicode font!) and filling in “Do-minus” (Lord) or “Do-mini” (Lords) etc. as the grammar requires.  The scribes had to write it so often that repeating the suffixes was more than they could stand.  We do it with “etc” and “Dr” and “LOL” but when a scribe in an unfamiliar document does it, readers can feel sort of left out of the game until their brains master the abbreviation lexicon.  In October, 2016, someone vandalized the World War II monument in D.C., which has stones dedicated to all the states which contributed troops.  They spray painted this on the North Dakota stone: “#NoAP”  If you were young, liberal, and active on Facebook in 2015-17, you can probably interpret it as the Twitter hashtag opposing the "Dakota Access Pipeline" construction through the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, but the Park Police were without a clue when it was first reported in the Washington Post.

Learning Paleography Should Be Collaborative

            Having put your brain through that kind of exercise is taxing, so you have to take breaks.  Neuroplasticity, like blood-oxygen level, can be exhausted over time.  Coming back to a puzzle can sometimes bring on a sudden clarification because your “mojo” has come back, too.  Do not work entirely alone.  At least occasionally, share your task with at least one or more other persons, no matter what the minor differences in their training.  You will find something peculiar happens when you do.  The more eyes you put on a given document, the better everyone sees it.  I do not know why this happens, and it’s spooky, but it happens.  Also, if you have more than one document and different people are working on different documents alone for a while, switch documents, taking care to guide the new reader into your document with clear indications of what you know, what you guess, and what you know you don’t know.  Try not to prejudice them in favor of or against any particular reading so you get full advantage of the differentness of their brains and training from your own.  Sometimes they will look at a passage that has had you face-keyboarding for hours and go “oh, it’s obvious, it means X!”  Usually, at such moments, a simple “thank you” will do though you may feel the urge to kiss them.  Then look around the document for other unknown-gaps that look like that one and see if you can apply the same viewing/reading to them.

Making the Shift from Decoding to Reading--Read it Aloud

            Gradually, the code-breaking should give way to reading or reading-like-behavior, especially if you try reading passages aloud.  Remember always that you have two language storage systems, aural/oral and visual, and the aural/oral one (in native speakers) is older and wiser.  Second languages learned later in life are likely to be visual-first, so you may not have that advantage when working in them, but if you know a native speaker, they’re an invaluable ally.  Save asking them for when you have gotten as far as you can on your own, but don’t neglect them.  In my experience with French and Spanish MSS and the Modern Languages faculty, they love it.  It’s like being Superman or –woman on Earth vs. just another native Kryptonian among others.  Even if they do not know what  the text means, they may be able to read it better than you can decipher it once you have broken the code for them.

Manuscript "Scripts" and Manuscript "Hands"--Group Tendencies vs. Individual Tics

            One last point needs to be made.  Medievalists distinguish between “scripts,” the widely used styles of writing taught and learned in scriptoria under a master’s teaching (Gothic, Literra Bastarda, Copperplate), and “hands,” the variety of ways individual scribes might use a given script for different document types, or the way a given script was practiced in a given geographical region or even monastery or court ("chancery hand," "court hand," "engrossing hand").  Scribal hands can be highly personalized, so much so that a database has been created of late medieval English scribes who wrote manuscripts containing the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, John Trevisa, William Langland and Thomas Hoccleve.  Many scribes who happened to have signed one or more manuscrips have been identified by the peculiar repeating gestures each used in other, unsigned manuscripts: When you have learned to read a script in one document, coming upon another document in that script is a lucky break.  Many of the script names were given them by modern scholars who were trying to make sense of the variety confronting them by linking letter forms in many unknown manuscripts to manuscripts of known places of origin and dates.  If you get lucky, a scribe signs his work, almost always at the end with a prayer and sometimes even a date and/or place.  Sometimes the script name sounds like art history, as in “from the Vrelent atelier,” a prolific Netherlandish shop that produced books of hours by the dozens or hundreds for bourgeois clients who wanted to pray with serious bling.  If you check out the “Scripts” link (left menu) on Diane Tillotson’s Latin paleography page and look at the types of hands under each type of script, you’ll get it: Knowing in advance that you’re looking at “script X” written in “hand Y” to produce a “document type Z” means you’re starting way ahead of the struggling beginner who began reading at the top of this page.