Palaeographical Method

Palaeographical work to date has not generally accounted for quantitative methods in the field; although these have proved controversial (D’Haenens 1975; Ornato 1975; Costamagna et al. 1995 and 1996; Costamagna 1998; Pratesi 1998; Canart 2006), they are now espoused by senior scholars such as Professors Albert Derolez and J. Peter Gumbert (Gumbert 1998, 397–404; Derolez 2003, 1–9). Indeed, such methods have been the subject of much research in the last few years, but most of this has been theoretical or applied only to small cases, partly because of the very high degree of labour involved (Ciula 2005; Aussems 2006; Stokes 2007/8; Rehbein et al. 2009). The applications to date have also been primarily ‘Linnaean’, that is concerned with classification and identification, rather than ‘Darwinian’ and dealing with development across time (Stansbury 2009). Furthermore, they tend to view letter-forms as objects outside the manuscript or documentary context in which they were written, but palaeographers have long understood that handwriting depends heavily on the context in which it is produced (Boyle 1984, xv–xvi, among many). Much more significantly, these methods tend to involve computational approaches, whereby the computer operates as a ‘black box’ which receives images of manuscripts at one end and returns a classification of the handwriting at the other (for examples see Rehbein et al. 2009). However, scholars cannot evaluate the ‘black box’ and so are rightly reluctant to accept its results (Stokes 2009; Vogeler 2009). A less common alternative is for the scholar to gather large amounts of quantitative data manually and to analyse this him- or herself (examples include Gilissen 1973; Beneš 1999; McGillivray 2005; Aussems 2006). The latter, however, requires a great deal of labour, and the resulting data is normally published only in summary, or in a printed format which cannot be reused by others.

The challenge, therefore, and a significant objective of this project, is to provide a system which presents palaeographical data quickly and easily in a way which scholars can understand, evaluate, and trust. This cannot be done using purely computational methods with the computer as a ‘black box’, since this simply replaces the palaeographer with the computer as a source of authoritarian statements (Stokes 2009). Instead, the evidence must be presented in a way that palaeographers and medievalists in general can engage with: images of individual letters and of the manuscript context (Davis 2007), charts showing frequencies of letter-forms by date (Mundó 1982; Beneš 1999; McGillivray 2005), maps showing geographical distribution (Jessop 2008), and so on. Such data is difficult for individual scholars to compile, especially those without technical expertise. Instead, we need a system which allows us to perform rapid searches for exploration and research, to reference the data as evidence to support a palaeographical argument, and to reuse the data in new ways not imagined by the compilers. Only then will palaeographers achieve in practice the methodological desiderata which have been described in theory but which have not become widespread.

Terminology and Typologies for Handwriting

Particularly significant in palaeography is the difficulty in establishing standards for describing detailed features of handwriting, an issue which has been central to the Comité international de paléographie latine but which is still far from a solution which holds across the range of European palaeography, not least because the hands of individual scribes could be so personal (Spunar 1957; Gasparri 1976, among many). Nevertheless, this question has become much more pressing with the advent of computing, since a consistent terminology is a prerequisite for building searchable text-based databases. Indeed, this is one of the biggest challenges with integrated online systems: if different data-sources use different terms or different classifications then it becomes difficult or impossible to search across them. A proposed model for representing handwriting in digital form is a significant outcome of this project; for full details see the blog series 'Describing Handwriting'.

English Vernacular Script of the Eleventh Century

No study of writing in the vernacular from this period as a complete corpus has yet been published (but see Stokes 2006), despite the importance of the manuscripts it includes. These range from the only surviving copy of Beowulf, through the bulk of Old English homiletic prose and four recensions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, to many royal and ecclesiastical charters. The vernacular script of this period has also received less attention than the Latin despite current interest in vernaculars in general, and the relationship between Latin and vernacular writing is particularly understudied. Indeed, the vernacular script of eleventh-century England has proved unusually challenging. Neil Ker, perhaps the best-regarded expert in the field, observed in 1948 that this script ‘followed no obvious course of development’ until the 1040s at the earliest (1985 reprint, 34), and yet T. Alan Bishop and Pierre Chaplais consistently noted the difficulty of dating vernacular documents from the 1040s, ’50s and ’60s (1957, passim). Ker also stated that the vernacular script was the same as the Latin by the mid-eleventh cen- tury, but as he himself noted the letter-forms were consistently distinguished between the two scripts (1957, xxiv–xxvi). However, all of these scholars were working at a time before digital tools were available and before anyone could feasibly manage an entire corpus of several hundred scribal hands. Today these tools are readily available, as is a significant amount of work on this material, both digital and print-based, and a relatively large number of these manuscripts and charters are now available in high-quality images, all of which opens new opportunities to tackle this difficult problem.