Paleography: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


(Redirected to Palaeography article)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

William Shakespeare's will, written in secretary hand: a script difficult for modern readers to interpret[1]

Palaeography, also spelt paleography (from Greek παλαιός palaiós, "old" and γράφειν graphein, "to write") is the study of ancient handwriting and the practice of deciphering and reading historical manuscripts.[2]



Palaeography can be an essential skill for historians and philologists, as it tackles two main difficulties. First, since the style of a single alphabet in each given language has evolved constantly, it is necessary to know how to decipher its individual characters as they existed in various eras. Second, scribes often used many abbreviations, usually so as to write more quickly and sometimes to save space, so the specialist-palaeographer must know how to interpret them. Knowledge of individual letter-forms, ligatures, punctuation, and abbreviations enables the palaeographer to read and understand the text. The palaeographer must know, first, the language of the text (that is, a 21st-century English or French speaker must become expert in the relevant earlier forms of these languages); and second, the historical usages of various styles of handwriting, common writing customs, and scribal/notarial abbreviations. Philological knowledge of the language, vocabulary, and grammar generally used at a given time or place can help palaeographers identify ancient or more recent forgeries versus authentic documents.

Knowledge of writing materials is also essential to the study of handwriting and to the identification of the periods in which a document or manuscript may have been produced.[3] An important goal may be to assign the text a date and a place of origin: this is why the palaeographer must take into account the style and formation of the manuscript and the handwriting used in it.[4]

History of the Term

The first time the term "palaeography" was used was perhaps in 1708 by Bernard de Montfaucon, a Benedictine monk.[5] During the early 19th century, Palaeography was fully separated from the science of diplomatics. Wilhelm Wattenbach and Leopold Delisle greatly contributed to this development with their studies of the relationship between the human hand and writing. Their efforts were mainly directed at reconstructing "the ductus" — the movement of the pen in forming the letter — and at establishing a genealogy of writing based on the historical developments of its forms.[6]

Jean Mabillon was a French Benedictine monk and scholar, considered the founder of palaeography and diplomatics.

Ancient Near East

Drawing of the hieroglyphic seal found in the Troy VIIb layer.
See also: Epigraphy and Paleography in medieval Islam

Aramaic palaeography

Table showing the Mandaic alphabet (Abagada) with some of the mysteries represented by the lett

Greek palaeography

Indian palaeography


North Indian palaeography

South Indian palaeography

The earliest attested form of writing in South India is inscriptions found in caves, associated with the Chalukya and Chera dynasties. These are written in variants of what is known as the Cave character, and their script differs from the Northern version in being more angular. Most of the modern scripts of South India have evolved from this script, with the exception of Vatteluttu, the exact origins of which are unknown, and Nandinagari, which is a variant of Devanagari that developed due to later Northern influence.

Latin palaeography


See the following articles:

Middle Ages


James J. John points out that the disappearance of imperial authority around the end of the fifth-century in most of the Latin-speaking half of the Roman Empire does not entail the disappearance of the Latin scripts, but rather introduced conditions that would allow the various provinces of the West gradually to drift apart in their writing habits.[7]

Gregory the Great is widely responsible for the use of Latin post-Rome. He sent Queens Theodelinde and Brunhilda, as well as Spanish bishops, copies of manuscripts. Furthermore, he sent Augustine to Britain to proselytize (see Bede’s History of the English Church) and the manuscripts he sent with him are the core of missionary work. Although Rome loses dominance as a production centre, its manuscripts were distributed across Europe.[8]

The Irish would be transforming a variant version of half-uncial by the late sixth century. A series of transformations, for book purposes, of the cursive documentary script that had grown out of the later Roman cursive would get under way in France by the mid-seventh century. In Spain half-uncial and cursive would both be transformed into a new script, the Visigothic minuscule, no later than the early eighth century.[9]

Prior to the era of Charlemagne, several parts of Europe had their own handwriting styles. Charlemagne's rule over a large part of the continent offered an opportunity to unify these styles in the hand called Carolingian minuscule. Simplistically speaking, the only scripts to escape this unification were the Visigothic (or Mozarabic) styles, which survived into the 12th or 13th centuries; the Beneventan, which was still being used in the middle of the 16th Century; and the script that is still used in traditional Irish handwriting, which has been in severe decline since the early 20th Century and is now almost extinct. (The printed form was abolished by the Irish government in the 1950s).

Carolingian Miniscule

In the 12th Century, Carolingian minuscule underwent a change in its appearance and adopted bold and broken Gothic letter-forms. This style remained predominant, with some regional variants, until the 15th Century, when the Renaissance humanistic scripts revived a version of Carolingian minuscule. It then spread from the Italian Renaissance all over Europe.

Further medieval scripts

Modern period

These humanistic scripts are the base for the antiqua and the handwriting forms in western and southern Europe. In Germany and Austria, the Kurrentschrift was rooted in the cursive handwriting of the later Middle Ages. With the name of the calligrapher Ludwig Sütterlin, this handwriting counterpart to the blackletter typefaces was abolished by Hitler in 1941. After World War II, it was taught as an alternative script in some areas until the 1970s; it is no longer taught.

See also

Further reading

Western palaeography

Indian palaeography


  1. ^ Cardenio, Or, the Second Maiden's Tragedy, pp. 131-3: By William Shakespeare, Charles Hamilton, John Fletcher (Glenbridge Publishing Ltd., 1994) ISBN 0944435246
  2. ^ 'Palaeography', Oxford English Dictionary.
  3. ^ Robert P. Gwinn, "Paleography" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropaedia, Vol. IX, 1986, p. 78.
  4. ^ Fernando De Lasala, Exercise of Latin Paleography (Gregorian University Rome, 2006) p. 7.
  5. ^ Bernard de Montfaucon et al., Palaeographia Graeca, sive, De ortu et progressu literarum graecarum, Paris, Ludovicum Guerin (1708).
  6. ^ R. Marichal, “Paleography” in New Encyclopaedia New York: Gale-Thomson, 2003 Vol.X, p. 773.
  7. ^ James J. John, "Latin Paleography", in J. Powell, Medieval Studies 2nd. ed. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992), 15-16.
  8. ^ See Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, trans. Daibi O Croinin and David Ganz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 83-112; 190-202.
  9. ^ John, 16.

External links

The basic modern Latin alphabet
Aa Bb Cc Dd Ee Ff Gg Hh Ii Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Qq Rr Ss Tt Uu Vv Ww Xx Yy Zz

history palaeography derivations diacritics punctuation numerals Unicode list of letters ISO/IEC 646


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address