Scribes and Scribbles: A Summer Spent among Medieval Sources

This guest blog is by Chris Cooijmans, a third-year PhD candidate in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the exploits of the Vikings in and around the Frankish realm, for which he is currently establishing a database of primary source material. Having received funding from the SGSAH SDF Training Fund, Chris was recently able to attend Keele University’s Latin and Palaeography Summer School.

Present-day medieval historians live in an unprecedented age of access. As increasing numbers of premodern sources continue to receive scholarly editions – many of which may be found online – their subject matter is able to circulate wider than ever, protected from the ravages of time, calamity, and indifference.

But despite their undeniable value and convenience, these editions ultimately remain surrogates for their source material, whose artisanship and ardour are all too easily lost on the bleached and bound pages of any mass-produced paperback. Apart from its romanticist overtones, engaging with medieval documents in their original hand allows scholars to identify idiosyncrasies of production and presentation, revealing, among other things, authorial intent, skill, and creativity.

This reasoning, along with the generous financial assistance of the SGSAH, brought me to distant Keele University for the fortieth instalment of its renowned Latin and Palaeography Summer School (22-27 July). Within the handsome confines of the nineteenth-century Keele Hall, my programme of choice consisted of five days of intensive palaeographical training in medieval Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and Middle English, interspersed with various pertinent lectures. Focusing on the logistics and societal impact of armed conflict between the thirteenth and fifteenth century, a wide variety of primary documents – some fifty overall – were transcribed and contextualised over the course of nine sessions, each lasting several hours.

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Keele Hall in Staffordshire, home to the annual Latin and Palaeography Summer School (photo by the author).

Across medieval Europe, handwriting conventions varied widely between respective time periods, regions, and scriptoria, whilst many texts – administrative or otherwise – were composed using a substantial amount of scribal abbreviation (see Figure II). With these and other hurdles present, reading, transcribing, and interpreting medieval documents can be a lengthy and challenging process – during which individual words, clauses, and sentences are often difficult to decipher. As such, the palaeography sessions at Keele were very hands-on, encouraging participants to read the texts at their own pace, letter for letter, word for word, until a full transcription emerged. At this point, the content of the document would be translated by the group as a whole and placed in its proper historical context, with room for discussion throughout. Depending on the size of the source in question, this entire process would take anywhere from several minutes to an hour or more.

Following a demanding but highly-rewarding week of training, I left Keele with a refreshed palaeographical aptitude and competence in medieval Latin, courtesy of the expert guidance and supportive environment offered by the summer school.

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An excerpt from one of the Latin manuscripts considered during the course (The National Archives, C 61/49, m.38d, 48, concerning the array of archers). Note the extensive use of scribal abbreviation.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Joanna via email at joanna.rodgers@uhi.ac.uk, or find her on Twitter

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