Paleography is the study (and deciphering) of ancient handwriting. For why it matters, take a look at this great blog post explaining the whys by Dr. Teresa Webber. I don't spend much time on paleography in my medieval courses. Most students are doing well to conquer Middle English in typeset, normalized student editions, without tackling the vagaries of medieval scribes and their peculiarities. I won't ask you to "read" a manuscript without access to, at minimum, a transcription of its texts, and usually I try to match manuscripts with student editions or translations.
But for those of you who are interested, here are a few resources that you can consult on your own.
General Overview Material
- "An Introduction to Medieval Scripts" (video, cc) featuring the manuscript superstar scholar Erik Kwakkel
- "An Introduction to Script Changes" (video, cc), also with Dr. Kwakkel.
- The University of Nottingham Special Collections library has a quick introduction to common late medieval hands (the kinds you'd need primarily to do archival research), including a discussion of abbreviations and an interactive exercise.
- There are many texts for learning to read medieval hands. The primary three are Michelle P. Brown, A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 (for primarily Latin book- and document hands), M. B. Parkes, English Cursive Bookhands, 1250-1500, and Jean F. Preston and Laetitia Yeandle, English Handwriting, 1400-1650 (all of which are in the library). More recently, Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Maidie Hilmo, Linda Olson, Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary and Visual Approaches both situate paleography within the study of the entire book. They provide some paleography examples, and are a nice follow-up to the first three suggested texts.
- The University of Leeds has produced two great apps (although now a little dated) for practicing reading later medieval and early modern handwriting: Medieval Handwriting (on iTunes and Google Play) and English Renaissance Handwriting (also on iTunes and Google Play).
- Harvard's Geoffrey Chaucer website has a brief explanation of how to read the English hands called anglicana and secretary.
- The National Archive in the UK has its own tutorial for reading handwriting 1500-1800.
- The Bodleian Library in Oxford has a tutorial strictly for reading secretary script (which was the "everyday cursive" script in England, c. 1450-1600).
- Finally, Notre Dame has a whole page aggregating all different tutorials for different national scripts for different time periods: https://sites.nd.edu/western-european-history-at-und/toolkit-palaeography/.
Videos that will make more sense...
...once you've looked at some medieval handwriting
- "Biting and Fusion" in medieval script (video, cc)
- "The development of Caroline Minuscule" (video, cc)
- Looking at a medieval charter (video, cc)
- Scribes used many, many abbreviations when copying text, and figuring out which abbreviation means what can add to the opacity of medieval manuscripts. (Imagine a person 400 years from now, trying to decipher a text message you sent to your brother. Scribes abbreviated in a similar way, and for similar reasons, with similar obfuscating results.) The standard dictionary of these abbreviations is by a long-dead Italian scholar A. Cappelli, available online in Italian and Latin.
- There is also an online Cappelli app (optimized for smartphone usage). However, it's in German - so here's your chance to improve your German while you learn Latin abbreviations! https://www.adfontes.uzh.ch/mobile/#CappelliSeite
- One of the most frustrating parts of transcription is being able to make out some letters of a word, but not others. The Enigma website (http://enigma.huma-num.fr/) helps you indentify possible (Latin only!) words that contain the letters you do recognize. It's particularly excellent for strings of undistinguishable minims.
- The website Late Medieval Scribes is a visual catalogue of all the scribal hands of all the medieval scribes who copied the poetry of Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and other important poets. For new students, it is perhaps most useful for seeing, quickly, the different ways scribes might form different letters (like a, r, s, and g, all of which could be formed in many ways).
- Some of the work you do with manuscripts isn't just transcribing - it's doing basic interpretation of days, dates, and place names. Here's some resources for that:
- Medieval Calendar Calculator: figure out which day of the week a date would have fallen on (with major feast days listed): https://www.wallandbinkley.com/mcc/
- Orbus Latinus: identify Latin place names and match them with their modern locales: http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/Graesse/contents.html
- Need to know how much six shillings was worth, in modern terms, in a historical period (not only medieval)? This website will help you calculate that: https://www.measuringworth.com/calculators/ppoweruk/
Cursive (or Everyday) Handwriting
The resources above primarily treat "bookhands" -- the type of writing used for creating formal books. They are clear to read without much training, but slow for the scribe to write. There was, however, another class of script -- a flowing cursive used for private documents, conducting business, and producing legal documents. It was much faster to write, but takes a little more practice to read.
- This Latin legal document from 14th c. London records a formal command for one Alice Wade to remove her primitive toilet setup from her house because it was stinking up the neighbors. The BBC News (whose article this is) has kindly marked up parts of the document to help you decipher a few key words, and has provided a translation.
- Margery Brews' two Valentines to John (III) Paston are perhaps the most famous medieval letters; here is another BBC news article on one of the letters, with an image of it. In this British Library blog post, you can access a digital facsimile of the other letter, which you can enlarge and read without much difficulty. In both you can see professional "everyday" handwriting, here in Middle English.
- English Handwriting 1500-1700 is a self-directed online tutorial hosted by the University of Cambridge. Although the examples are later than medieval cursive hands, many of the letter-forms are the same (or related to) their earlier counterparts.
- French Renaissance Handwriting at the Newberry Library focuses on French handwriting 1300-1700 and is a fabulous resource for information and practice.