Master the art of reading medieval manuscripts
Throughout the fall a group of students gathered at Dartmouth Library Rauner’s Special Collections Library to decipher handwritten texts from the Middle Ages.
The course – “Latin palaeography”, co-taught by jennifer lynn, director of the language program at Classics Department, and medievalist Cecilia Gaposhkin, professor and president of the Department of History—Was a unique opportunity for undergraduates interested in Latin, medieval studies and the history of books.
Paleography – the study of historical manuscripts and handwriting – is typically not taught at the undergraduate level, Gaposchkin explains.
“It’s amazing that we have 10 students who want to learn this,” she says. “They do university-level work. “
Textspeak for the Middle Ages
Before printing, European scribes wrote and copied pen and ink manuscripts in Latin. Today, making sense of these works requires knowledge of everything from calligraphic styles to idiomatic Latin expressions and abbreviations – think the texts speak of the Middle Ages.
“It’s literally the same thing,” says Kamil Salame ’24, a member of the School House residential community in Greenwich, Connecticut, comparing abbreviations used by medieval writers to modern short forms, such as LOL or OMG.
In handwritten abbreviation, “DNO means domino (lord), DS is deus (god), ”says Salame, who is considering a modified government major. “A you with a line on it equals letters uh– they just didn’t want to insert the last character at the end, as we would write “tho” instead of “though”. ”
“It’s like solving a puzzle,” says Elizabeth Hadley ’23, a member of School House in North Caldwell, NJ, who calls the class “one of the best experiences I have had in Dartmouth. ”
It’s amazing that we have 10 students who want to learn this. They really do university-level work.
Cecilia Gaposchkin, professor of history
A graduate of the premedical classics, Hadley says it’s “fun to put the pieces together to figure out words.” And then just see the manuscripts themselves. These are artifacts you never thought you could see.
Paleography is an essential part of classical and medieval scholarship, says Lynn. “Even if you read classic texts that come in a printed book – Cicero or Virgil, let’s say – an editor looked at all the manuscripts we have and had to decide which one was the right one. You should be able to assess the editor’s work, even if most of your reading is from books.
Manuscripts can help reveal details about the specific era and culture in which they were written, Gaposchkin says. “Every scholar worth his salt invariably ends up having to contend with the material dossier upon which our knowledge rests. Often the only way to date and place evidence is in writing. It is a basic technical skill to carry out provenance work.
In a typical session, students gather in Rauner’s Ticknor Room with an open manuscript on a table, the page under discussion projected onto a screen, and a library cart with reference books nearby. Students have transcribed and translated the text in advance, and they go around the circle sharing interpretations. The teachers intervene with elements of historical and linguistic context.
“IIt’s a fundamentally collaborative discipline, ”says Salame. “You need several pairs of eyes on a manuscript so that someone can see something that you may not be able to see at the moment. “
Students learn about manuscript conservation from Dartmouth Library Collections Curator Deborah Howe; the codicology, or the study of books as physical objects, by Special Collections Librarian Morgan Swan; and visit the Book art workshop, where program manager Sarah Smith shows them how to make oak gall ink and quill pens and allows them to practice writing their own Gothic calligraphy.
“It’s difficult, but fun to put yourself in the place of the scribe, the person who writes what we read for homework,” says Hadley.
For their final projects, students document fragments of manuscripts from Rauner’s collection, artefacts that no one may have examined closely for hundreds of years.
“I’m looking at an eleventh-century martyrology on Saints Palatias and Laurentia,” says Salame. “This is a fragment of a folio that was torn from its original manuscript and reused as part of a binding for another manuscript. There are scribe’s notes in the margins and overlaid text from another hand from a later period. On some edges the text is cut off and I have to find out what the words are.
“Rauner has a lot of fragments that have very minimal metadata,” Gaposchkin explains. “Students basically have to do the work of a librarian or historian.”