Running A Palaeography Swap-Shop

As part of the Nurturing Worcestershire’s Treasures programme each trainee runs a swap-shop. These provide an excellent chance for the trainees to be introduced to a skill used in a specific area of museum or archive management. For my swap shop I chose to look at palaeography, which involves reading and transcribing ancient handwriting. I felt this was an interesting topic for the other trainees to learn about. It is, moreover, a skill that increasingly few have the chance to receive formal training in, because many academic institutions have stopped running palaeography courses. There are some summer schools and informal workshops available, however, and these can provide a useful introduction to this complicated process. One of the volunteers from Worcester Cathedral library, for example, annually attends the University of Keele’s palaeography summer camp.


Planning the palaeography swap shop was tricky, as some trainees had Latin and others did not. Also, the archival and bound materials in each institution are very different. I felt it was important that the trainees were made aware of the different varieties of document one could be asked to transcribe within a library or archive. I wanted to informally structure the swap shop around a series of exercises that we could work through as a team. For anyone who has taken skill training in palaeography, they are probably only too aware that it can be tiring to read antiquated scripts for long periods of time. Working as a group can alleviate the fatigue and the frustration experienced when coming face to face with a particularly nasty script or inconsistent scribe. When I attended classes at the Borthwick institution at York as part of my MA, we always worked as a large group, reading aloud a few lines each going round in circle. This made transcribing a far less stressful process and you become more accepting of the fact that everyone inevitably makes errors when learning palaeography.

Dee's Swapshop photo 2


Following a similar model, the other trainees and I worked through transcribing a series of “cures” for ailments (such as gout and also the plague) that dated from roughly 1540. These came from a monastic register and were written in middle English. We also looked at a cough syrup recipe from the seventeenth century written on a flyleaf of a music score. Everyone found this hand much more amenable to transcribe. As well as these we looked at a charter, a royal letter, and some accounts of the Dean and Chapter. These types of documents are more typically transcribed by historians as part of their research process.


Dee's Swapshop photo 3I am still by no means an expert at palaeography! I feel far more comfortable transcribing documents than full texts from manuscripts. Nonetheless, I like to think that I gave some useful hints and tips to the other trainees that they might be able to use in the future. In particular, I felt the trainees benefitted from learning to create a document alphabet. This is when you identify all of the letter forms present in each document from A to Z. This sounds a bit basic- but it is widely recognized as an extremely useful practise. For example, check out this website on middle English scribes. As you can see the project gives examples of letter forms used on a scribe by scribe basis. More generally, by creating a document alphabet when working with one document you can compare the different letter forms and distinguishing them from one another becomes easier as a result. Also, whilst many palaeography experts know much about the evolution of handwriting, it can be useful for beginners to work on a document by document basis, because then they are able to recognize that there are often no hard and fast rules in palaeography.

I really enjoyed the session and by five o’clock, when the light was fading, we’d all had our fair share of counting minims and deciphering abbreviation marks. I hope Alison Winston in particular found the session useful, for she is hoping to embark on a postgraduate in archives and record keeping. Her desired field is one in which palaeography should come in most handy!


One thought on “Running A Palaeography Swap-Shop

  1. I really enjoyed it Dee, and I did learn a lot. But you are right, I was so tired by the end of it! Thank you for organising a really interesting swap shop

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