11 Illuminating Secrets of Paleographers

Paleographers know exactly why your dog might get weirdly excited if you whip out a medieval manuscript.
Paleographers know exactly why your dog might get weirdly excited if you whip out a medieval manuscript. / Cate Gillon/Getty Images (manuscript); Subjug/iStock via Getty Images (folder); BongkarnThanyakij/iStock via Getty Images (desk)

Tempting though it may be to assume that paleography is related to paleontology, all the fields share is the prefix paleo, meaning old. In paleography’s case, that old refers to old writing. And if you’ve ever seen a Gothic manuscript—those exquisite medieval works in which each letter looks nearly indistinguishable from the one before it—you can imagine the kind of eagle eye a paleographer must have.

But apart from scrutinizing serifs, what does a paleographer do, and how do they do it? Considering paleography comprises the study of any old handwriting from any place and time in history, that’s a rather broad question. For the purpose of narrowing the scope at least a little, we chatted with two medieval paleographers: Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America and professor at Simmons University’s school of library and information science; and Kathryn Jasper, a history professor at Illinois State University (ISU), where she also oversees Paleography Illuminated, a hub for digital transcriptions of manuscripts in ISU’s collection.

Read on for illuminating details about scripts, scribes, and surprisingly heated paleographer squabbles.

1. Paleographers often have an affinity for languages.

Between abbreviations that differ from scribe to scribe and letters that look like Ds but are actually As (or some other letter swap), each manuscript a paleographer handles has the potential to seem like its own language at first glance. Preexisting transcription guides can help, but not always.

“When I first went into the archives having taken paleography courses, I went in confident and I had a little book—everybody has this book. It’s an Italian book that’s edited by someone called Cappelli and everyone knows [about it] ... It’s a dictionary of abbreviations and handwriting,” Jasper explains. “So I had [my Cappelli], I had my manuscript, I sat down, and I just could not make heads or tails of anything. And this went on for about two weeks, because there was nothing—that little guide book had not one abbreviation or letter that I was looking at actually in it.”

Jasper finally made headway because the manuscript was written in Latin, which she had studied for years (“It’s kind of the love of my life,” Jasper says). Basically, in order to transcribe such a cryptic manuscript, you need to rely on context clues. And you can’t pick up on context clues if you don’t understand the language.

“The number one thing I always tell [my students] is that if you’re not really well-versed in the language you’re reading, you won’t get anywhere. Even more than the paleography skills, for me the expertise in the language is far more important,” Jasper says. “You see an ee with a line over it—how are you going to know what that means? You’ll know from the context that it means esse, which is the Latin for ‘to be.’ But you wouldn’t know that unless you were really good at Latin.”

2. Disagreements between paleographers can get pretty heated.

A page from the Book of Kells, transcribed by monks during the 9th century.
A page from the Book of Kells, transcribed by monks during the 9th century. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Beyond deciphering a manuscript, experts can also use handwriting and other context clues to pinpoint a date and place of origin. But it’s definitely not an exact science, and paleographers often disagree over the details.

“I might look at a manuscript and say, ‘Well, based on the style of the lettering and this letter form and that letter form, I would place this in the late 12th century, maybe northern Austria.’ And someone else might come along and say, ‘Well, I don’t know, it looks more German than Austrian to me.’ And this is the kind of thing paleographers fight about,” Davis explains.

She’s not exaggerating when she says “fight.”

“The Book of Kells is a great example,” Davis says. “We really don’t know absolutely for sure when and where that manuscript was produced, but it’s the most famous medieval manuscript on the planet. And people will go to conferences and get in screaming fights about how many scribes there are in that manuscript, and they get in different arguments about when and where it was written. Or the Beowulf manuscript, that’s another great example. I’ve seen people practically come to blows arguing over the date and place of origin of the Beowulf manuscript.”

At the end of the day, there’s a good chance dissenting paleographers will just have to agree to disagree—and hope that their opinions make it into a critical edition of a manuscript translation.

“A good textual edition will include all those disputes and will have footnotes,” Jasper says. “That’s why they’re not the most readable things. They’re great for scholars. But they’ll have notes [like] ‘This person believes that this was the letter A, this person believes it’s an O. Here’s the difference; here’s what I’m going to say that it is.’ It’s not a precise science, but it’s still incredibly meticulous.”

3. Some paleographers love the “old book smell” of manuscripts (and so do dogs).

Paleographers are just as fond of “old book smell” as the rest of us, if not more. “I’m going to sound so ridiculous, but it feels like home to me. When I go into a rare book library, I know where the manuscripts are because I can smell them,” Davis says.

That said, the odor of a centuries-old manuscript isn’t quite the same as what you smell when you stick your nose into a well-worn library paperback—and it’s not just a question of age. The parchment used in medieval manuscripts was made from animal skin, rather than the wood-based fibers we use today.

“It has kind of an earthy smell to it. My dog seems to think it smells like cow,” Davis explains. “My dog really gets excited when I get the parchment out, so I have to be careful because I don’t want him to eat it. That would be bad, but I guarantee that [dogs] would find it delicious.”

4. Many paleographers don’t wear gloves while handling parchment.

Considering animal skin’s durability, donning gloves before touching parchment isn’t necessary. In fact, plenty of paleographers advise against gloves, since they can make people feel impervious to causing damage. “I’ve found there are kind of two theories about wearing gloves. One is ‘Wear gloves,’” Jasper says. “And the other is ‘If we give you gloves, you’re going to be so rough with the thing.’”

Jasper and Davis are both in the latter camp. “It’s a really tactile kind of work,” Davis says. “You really need to be able to feel the page as you’re turning it in order to handle the manuscript safely. So you need clean hands, but not covered hands.”

Being covered in hand sanitizer won't cut it, either. “When COVID hit and suddenly we were all sanitizing all the time, the Library of Congress conservation lab conducted a study of the effect of sanitizers on parchment and antique paper,” Davis says. Discoloration and other damage varied depending on factors like the type of hand sanitizer, the type of material, and how long subjects waited to touch the material after applying sanitizer. But, as Davis explains, “The upshot was: Use soap, not sanitizer.”

Washing your hands and being extra gentle are small prices to pay for what promises to be an exhilarating experience. “There’s something really profoundly personal about interacting with a source that was written by hand. It’s something I’ve seen in students—the same feeling I got the first time I touched a 1000-year-old document,” Jasper says.

“When I’m handling a manuscript, I become part of its history,” Davis says. “I’m just one in a line of 1000 people who have touched this manuscript and handled it over the years, over the course of 800 [or] 900 years. And I just find that magical. I love that.”

5. Paleographers find plenty of doodles, stains, and other interesting stuff in manuscripts.

A book showing evidence of bookworms.
A book showing evidence of bookworms. / Ragesoss, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Scrawled annotations or doodles in the margins of a manuscript aren’t quite enough to qualify it as “illuminated,” which the National Gallery of Art defines as “painted decoration that generally includes precious metals such as gold or silver.” But they can still be pretty entertaining.

“[There are] all kinds of hilarious [doodles and writings in the margins] that really shouldn’t be there,” Jasper says. “Things like ‘I’m so bored right now’ or ‘This is, like, literally the worst.’ … It’s just like today.” And also like today, it's not out of the ordinary to discover a mischievous cat paw print pop up in the middle of a page.

Mice and insects also leave their mark on manuscripts. In fact, the term bookworm refers to any insect known to chew on books. “Invariably [in] the document I’m reading, there’s a hole right where something took a bite out of a letter,” Jasper says.

Actual artifacts turn up occasionally, too. Davis mentions pressed flowers, bookmarks, even eyeglasses—and, of course, stains are abundant. “Wine and wax are both pretty common,” she says, but she’s also spotted “what looks like blood.”

6. Paleographers put Twitter to good use.

When it comes to identifying a mysterious stain or inscrutable letter, paleographers often do what the rest of us would: Ask Twitter.

“Someone will post a picture of a weird letter in a manuscript and … put up the Bat-Signal like ‘Help!’ And we’ll all get on and say, ‘Well, I think it’s this, I think it’s that,’” Jasper explains. “Just go put in #MedievalTwitter and what you’ll find is hilarious.”

Davis recently solicited help from fellow Twitter users while teaching an online course for the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, after a student came across “what looks like a giant rust stain” on a manuscript page from the University of California, Davis. “It’s very circular, and it looks like maybe it had a handle, like a magnifying glass,” Davis says. “I put it on Twitter because you never know what the Twitterverse is going to come up with.”

Guesses ranged from coffee cups and candlesticks to French horns and aliens (twice), but the source of the stain is still unknown. In other words, Twitter always has answers—just not necessarily the right ones.

7. Paleographers usually don't know who originally wrote the text they're studying.

Not all paleographers study all kinds of documents. Jasper’s work, for example, centers on legal records. “I mostly read what are basically like land deeds. So they’re not as pretty and they don’t come in a book—they’re usually single-page, and they’re a mess,” Jasper says, “So people who study manuscripts, I’m pretty jealous of them.”

But those people have reason to be jealous of Jasper on at least one account: Most of her documents are signed by the scribe, whereas manuscripts are often anonymous.

“Sometimes a scribe will write at the end: ‘I, Brother Joe, finished this manuscript on the feast day of Saint Andrew in the Year of Our Lord 1322, and I really need a glass of wine and my hand hurts,’” Davis says. “That’s really great when that happens, but most scribes aren’t that considerate.”

When left without a name, a paleographer might just make one up. “I tend to name all my scribes Ælfric, because I really like that name,” Davis says. (The real Ælfric was a 10th-century English monk and scholar.) Or they might describe someone based on their actual handwriting, which is how a shaky-handed 13th-century annotator came to be called “The Tremulous Hand.”

“You might say, ‘Well that’s the one with that wonky A,’” Davis explains. “And people get very judgmental, too, and say, ‘This scribe is absolutely terrible; they didn’t know what they were doing.’ We’re a very judgmental group.”

8. Paleographers can pinpoint multiple scribes in a single manuscript.

Pointing out a scribe’s wonky A is more than an aesthetic judgment—because if the As suddenly stop being wonky later in that same manuscript, it’s a pretty good indication that another scribe now holds the quill. Along with actually deciphering a document and determining its date and place of origin, differentiating between multiple scribes in a single manuscript is an integral, and very common, part of many paleographical puzzles.

“There are some manuscripts that were written by different people and then brought together in a binding. But then there’s also, say, a really, really long text that has to be copied out, and it might take a year to write this manuscript—and so you might have multiple people working on it,” Davis explains.

She says that telling one scribe from another could come down to the way they wrote a certain letter, or an ampersand, or some unique abbreviation. In short, it’s yet more evidence that paleographers have an unparalleled capacity for attention to detail.

9. Paleographers want you to go through the boxes in your grandparents’ basement.

In the early 20th century, U.S. book dealers got a little obsessed with unbinding medieval manuscripts and selling them off, page by page, to collectors.

“So one of the things that I’m really focused on now is studying these single pages and trying to digitally recreate the manuscripts that were cut up,” Davis says. To date, she’s located 109 pages of a 13th-century French manuscript called the Beauvais Missal across more than two dozen states and five countries.

While some long-forgotten pages lurk in library collections, many are privately owned—even if the owners don’t actually know they have them. “I had someone contact me [from] Ohio who found in his uncle’s basement a box of pages from medieval manuscripts,” Davis says. None matched the Beauvais Missal, but they easily could have. “It happens all the time. It’s amazing.”

So you should definitely sift through every yellowed page in every beat-up box in your elder relatives’ storage spaces. And if helping scholars piece together precious manuscripts doesn’t motivate you already, maybe the prospect of a financial windfall will. “This box of manuscript pages that the guy found in his uncle’s house in Ohio eventually sold at auction for $28,000 to $30,000. You never know what you’re gonna find,” Davis says.

10. Paleographers spend a lot of time studying mistakes.

Mistakes are unavoidable when copying something by hand—and that means, as Jasper explains, “there’s no one definitive text of anything.” Even the Bible.

“My Latin teacher used to say, ‘One letter will kill you,’ and that’s because if you screw up one A or O, you change the meaning of the entire sentence,” she says. “So every single text that we have from antiquity is a result of hundreds of years of a game of telephone.”

Determining where each copy falls within that telephone game requires creating what’s called a “typology of errors.” Basically, you compare two copies to see if they share any of the same mistakes. “If they have the same mistakes, that means that they have the same parent manuscript. You just keep going backwards,” Jasper says. “And you want to get back to the original, or as close to the original as possible. The original may not even exist.”

11. Paleographers have their fair share of eureka moments.

The cover of Davis's book on La Chronique Anonyme Universelle, featuring part of the scroll.
The cover of Davis's book on La Chronique Anonyme Universelle, featuring part of the scroll. / Harvey Miller Publishers/Amazon

In summary, paleographers do a lot of accepting that they’ll probably never know for sure if they’ve reached the beginning of the game of telephone, or whether a given manuscript was written in Austria or Germany, or where the remaining pages of a torn-up tome are hiding (if they’re even still around). But paleographers do have breakthroughs—and all the uncertainty in their line of work makes those moments even sweeter.

Davis recalls a particular time when she was trekking around Europe trying to trace the order of copies of La Chronique Anonyme Universelle, a sweeping 15th-century genealogical history of the world from Adam all the way through King Louis XI. After noticing a correction to one copy in Orléans, France, a light bulb went off.

“I had that eureka moment where I realized I had everything backwards, and if I just changed the order of the manuscripts, then all the evidence would make sense. And I literally sort of jumped out of my seat. I went ‘Oh my gosh!’” she remembers. The outburst comically startled two old men sitting nearby. “I’ve had lots of moments where I’m doing research, looking through secondary sources in the library, and you suddenly find what you’re looking for, and you do sort of jump out of your seat or do a little happy dance or something. It’s nice when it happens. A lot of the time it doesn’t happen.”