On Palaeography

In Cambridge, at the end of last week, there was a smallish conference on Caroline minuscule, organised by a new network launched by two students of Rosamond McKitterick’s. It is now 23 years since the great Bernhard Bischoff, the undisputed master of early medieval palaeography, died after a long and distinguished career, and his influence hangs over the subject. Indeed, attendees at the conference were pleased to hear that the long-awaited third volume of Bischoff’s Katalog der festländlischen Handschriften des neunten Jahrhunderts (‘Catalogue of Continental Manuscripts of the Ninth Century’) has just been published, with a fourth volume now promised to expand the project. (And if you want to know just how ‘long-awaited’, Rosamond says she saw the notes when she was a student in Munich in 1975). But there is still much to do ourselves…

Bernhard Bischoff (d. 1991)

Bernhard Bischoff (d. 1991)

Why should we care about palaeography? To outsiders, even within medieval history, it can seem that it is a strange dark art, with practioners talking about ascenders and ligatures and half-uncial and other vaguely technical things which don’t seem to have a lot to do with ‘what people did’. This can be a mistake. Palaeography is one of the disciplines which underpin our knowledge of the early Middle Ages. As David Ganz reminded the conference attendees on Friday, it is the scientific effort to locate, as securely as possible, any given manuscript in time and space on the basis of its handwriting. Without such knowledge, we would be left unsure who wrote the sources which tell us what happened.

If anyone wants to get a sense of the ‘scientific endeavour’, they need just spend a while with Elias Lowe’s Codices Latini Antiquiores (CLA), a multi-volume survey of medieval scripts up to and including the reign of Charlemagne. It is organised by modern library and shelfmark, and for every Western manuscript extant from the period up to c. AD 800 it provides information on where such scripts were used, when, what the manuscript’s distinctive features are, and sometimes potted histories of the manuscripts themselves. With pictures (the one thing, sadly, Bischoff’s Katalog lacks). It was a monumental achievement for Lowe and his assistant, the sadly undervalued Bischoff. Rumours circulate that an online database of the material from CLA will one day appear, and that will help scholars immensely, as they strive to understand where their core material comes from.

You see, the art of writing books, pre-print, was dependent on young scribes learning very particular ways of forming letters. At the beginning of the Merovingian period, we assume that most manuscripts were written in uncial and half-uncial, which were large careful scripts. These were not always the most efficient scripts, if one wanted to write quickly. They are also difficult to localise. But as scribes sought ways of producing books more quickly, cursives were employed. The most famous minuscules which came out of this situation was from Luxeuil, with developments on the basic model made at Corbie, Chelles, and some other centres. Once you have a colophon or some other evidence which can attach a script to a particular place and time, then you can reconstruct libraries, discern intellectual networks, and other things which help us to understand the material contexts of text production.


Luxeuil Minuscule (Paris, BnF, lat. 9427; Europeana Regia)

Towards the end of the eighth century, matters become harder to unpick. Although many regional scripts were distinctive, over time it was their common features which were reinforced until there was a relative period of stability in script. This is when we get Caroline minuscule, the grand historic forerunner of Times New Roman, which emerged especially from Corbie but also from Tours and the court to create new standards of legibility – possibly in response to the massive upsurge in book production demanded by Charlemagne’s learning reforms. (Don’t forget, though, that we do not know how many books we lost from the Merovingian period. It is certainly a lot. The scale of Charlemagne’s ‘renaissance’ is difficult to assess).

Part of the point of the conference in Cambridge was to remind us that there is still much work to be done. I would highlight a paper by Laura Pani on North Italian manuscripts, in which she pointed out that Bischoff only really looked at manuscripts in the major Italian libraries, and that we are still a long way short of having a detailed, systematic understanding of scripts in the region. David Ganz told us that the great Malcolm Parkes had once criticised him for talking about ‘Caroline minuscule’ in the singular, because we needed to understand the regional variations there always were. Erik Kwakkel used graphs (!) to prove that allegedly distinctive features of late medieval ‘Gothic script’ extend back into the tenth century and probably earlier, leading him to an important point: we have often tried to ‘box’ scripts, when often we are dealing with ‘continuous hybridity’. The way forward is not going to be easy…

No, really it is not. Part of the problem is how we can possibly gain expertise. Bischoff, who looked at thousands of manuscripts, had a tendency to localise scripts to times and places without explaining why. Birgit Ebersperger should some images from his notes and it really stuck out that rarely defended or explained his dating. That doesn’t mean he was wrong, but it makes it harder for us to continue his work ‘scientifically’. The rapid increase in the numbers of manuscripts available to consult online means that we have easier access to the raw data. Hopefully the online CLA, maybe an online resource for the period after 800, and some careful guidelines will help. (That is why, after all, I have a section on manuscripts on merovingianworld!). It is a good time for this new network to emerge. Universities and funding bodies also need to support this kind of work even if it isn’t as obviously sexy or ‘timely’ as some projects.


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