Paleography: History, What It Studies, Methodologies, Applications

Paleography is the historiographic discipline that is responsible for studying written characters and their modes of execution, in order to determine their evolution, location and classification.
Within its object of study, this science includes all those aspects that could impact graphic forms, whether of a technological, economic, social, cultural, political, aesthetic nature, among others.

Paleography was originally defined as the study of ancient writings traced only on soft material supports such as paper, papyrus and parchment. In this way it was opposed to epigraphy, which dealt with the writings on hard writing materials such as marble, bronze or others. However, palaeography evolved to encompass all graphic forms.

Paleography studies writing in general. Source: Pixabay

The term paleography comes from the Latin palaeographia , as well as from two words of Greek origin: palaio – which means primitive or ancient – and – graphía –  which refers to spelling or writing. The dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy defines it as the “science of writing and ancient signs and documents.” It is then in charge of dating, locating and classifying the different testimonies alphabetically.

The person who dedicates himself to this science is known as a palaeographer; It is the person who usually has a command of the language of texts, styles, abbreviations, anagrams, nexograms and ligograms, among other graphic peculiarities. He is therefore considered as a kind of archaeologist of letters and texts.

Article index

  • one

    History

    • 1.1

      origins

    • 1.2

      Advances since the 19th century 

    • 1.3

      30’s

    • 1.4

      60-70

  • two

    What does paleography study?

  • 3

    Methodologies

  • 4

    Applications

  • 5

    Basic concepts in paleography

    • 5.1

      Writing box 

    • 5.2

      Row 

    • 5.3

      Body of the letter

    • 5.4

      Raised

    • 5.5

      Fallen 

    • 5.6

      Nexus

    • 5.7

      Ligature

    • 5.8

      Usual

    • 5.9

      Italics

    • 5.10

      Calligraphic

    • 5.11

      Lower case 

    • 5.12

      Capital letter

  • 6

    References

History

origins

Ancient writings began to be the object of study at the end of the seventeenth century. However, since ancient times, Greco-Roman historians used ancient writings as a reference. A great interest can also be detected in palaeographic problems, compilation of abbreviations and the continuous practice of reading ancient documents during the Middle Ages.

At this time there are great contributions to the area of ​​palaeography and diplomacy, but it was in the Modern Age with humanism, when the scientific character of both sciences was determined.

The sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the well-known diplomatic wars and the Bollandist movement, two long discussions about the authenticity of documents of noble origin, are considered as a decisive stage.

In fact, the first palaeographic treatise arises from a controversy with the Merovingian documents that were preserved in the Parisian abbey of Saint Denis. The Jesuit Daniel von Papenbroeck and the Benedictine monk Jean Mabillon held conflicting positions regarding its authenticity.

Given the controversy, the latter managed to check it developed an expert methodology, by transcription, dating and identification of those writings, in his work De re diplomatic Iibri V .

The term paleography emerged around the 18th century. The first to use it was the Benedictine Bernard de Montfaucon, in the work he published in 1708, in which he made a refined analysis of Mabillon’s work.

Its expansion to the outskirts of France was due to the work of Francesco Scipione Maffei in 1726, around codices from the Chapter Library of Verona. This scholar managed to derive medieval writing from Roman, thus posing it as the only kind of writing. This fact was paving the way for modern palaeography.

Advances since the 19th century 

In 1801 the process of separating the objects of study of paleography and diplomatic began. The investigations of Karl TC Schönemann were a key factor in achieving this.

Later, the contributions of Ludwig Traube (1861-1907) offer another impulse to science when he explains the graphic phenomenon as an aspect of the history of culture, through his work on the manuscript production of the Irish monastery of Peronne, in France.

As a scientific discipline, it was consolidated in the first decades of the 20th century with the work of experts in the area such as Luigi Schiaparelli, Giorgio Cencetti, Giulio Battelli and Lean Mallon. Its field and object of study was emerging then, although palaeography was still linked to the linear and static history of writing.

30’s

Starting in the 1930s, with the influence of the Marxist methodology of some historians, this science was rethought towards a social, situational and contextualized formulation of graphic texts.

Later, she acquired a positivist, technical and auxiliary orientation that was disabling her to resolve issues about writing as a socio-cultural practice.

60-70

But, for the decades of the 60s and 70s, its theoretical and methodological proposal was renewed, expanding its instruments and its field of research. It is then presented as a history of the practices of writing, since writing begins to be explained according to a historical and social context. In addition, graphic forms are related to other cultural manifestations.

Paleography today is interested in any written manifestation, regardless of its historical period or material support, since the written fact is established as a socio-cultural product that provides knowledge of the past and present.

What does paleography study?

Paleographic transcription is one of its methods par excellence. Source: Pixabay

Paleography has as its object of study the writings, their origin, conditioning, characteristics and evolution. For this, he is in charge of analyzing the graphic elements of writing, as well as accessory signs and abbreviations. It also deciphers the marginal notes and the copyist’s corrections.

It is considered a science with a totalizing sense, as it encompasses all research for practical, scientific and cultural purposes around graphic elements. Its objectives as a science could be summarized in the following points:

– Read and interpret ancient graphic signs to decipher their most elementary and simple meaning.

– Carry out a critical construction of your story. This means placing the writing of the texts in time and space, as well as defining to whom they could correspond, to whom they were addressed and for what purpose.

– Determine the origin, development, evolution, changes and variants of old graphic elements.

Methodologies

The quintessential method of paleography is essentially comparative and inductive-analytical. It starts from an analytical study, where the results of the comparison made between the known and the unknown are applied. It is a science that walks between description and interpretation, when analyzing written testimonies from a qualitative perspective.

For this, some methodological requirements are derived such as theoretical knowledge of graphic evolution, the establishment of graphic characteristics within a historical framework and the analysis of the generalities of writing. In this it is considered origin, influences, evolution, geographical area and time of permanence.

Another requirement is the general morphological analysis that involves the complete study of the forms of the letters and within which the transcription of the text is included.

Paleographic transcription is one that tries to make accessible, with current signs, what would be impossible to read to those who do not have a certain type of knowledge. Try to be as faithful as possible, that is to say, be simple but without violating the original text.

Applications

Deciphering individual characters and their evolution over various eras, identifying abbreviations, as well as identifying older or more recent forgeries versus authentic documents, are essential contributions that paleography offers to historians and philologists. It is also considered an auxiliary science of literary, archival, literary and linguistic studies.

By knowing its different branches, the number of applications that this discipline has can also be distinguished. Diplomatic palaeography is used to examine the linguistic signs contained in the documents.

Numismatics is the branch that analyzes coins and medals. The bibliographic focuses on the study of codices and ancient manuscript books, while the epigraphic is in charge of the graphics embodied in tombstones and other architectural manifestations.

Basic concepts in paleography

Writing box 

It is the space that the letters occupy and that is limited by margins and lines

Row 

It is the space in which it is written and that is limited by the margins.

Body of the letter

It is the dimension of the typographic totality, that is, it includes all the strokes of the letter.

Raised

Also called astiles is the part of the letter that goes over the top line.

Fallen 

It is the part of the script that exceeds the bottom line.

Nexus

It is the union of two or more characters made through a common stroke that creates a new shape.

Ligature

It is a typographic resource that makes it possible to join independent characters. It is used to avoid interference when reading or representing specific sounds.

Usual

It is that writing used daily or regularly by those who write.

Italics

It is about that writing whose speed in its execution causes the morphology of the letters to deform.

Calligraphic

It is the writing of uniform tracing and that faithfully follows a pattern.

Lower case 

The one whose alphabet is inscribed within a quadrilateral system. It is smaller in size than the capital letter and is constantly used in writing.

Capital letter

It refers to writing inscribed within a bilinear system. The writing strokes do not protrude from two parallel lines.

References

  1. Paleography. (2019, December 11). Wikipedia, The Encyclopedia. Recovered from wikipedia.org  
  2. Leonor Zozaya-Montes (2011): “Paleography”,  Paleography and related sciences . Recovered from paleografia.hypotheses.org
  3. Wikipedia contributors. (2019, December 14). In  Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia . Recovered from en.wikipedia.org
  4. González, L. What does paleography study? Diplomatic palaeography manual. Recovered from bibliopos.es/
  5. Castillo, A. and Sáez, C. (1999). Palaeography and history of written culture – From the sign to the writing . In RIESCO TERRERO, Ángel (ed.). Introduction to Paleography and General Diplomatics. Madrid: Synthesis, 1999. p. 21-31.
  6. Castillo Gómez, A. (1995). From Paleography to History. Of the practices of writing . In Barros, C. (ed.). History to debate, II. Return of the subject. Santiago de Compostela: History to Debate, 261-271.

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