Designing an introductory course in Latin palaeography for research students across the disciplines

In our latest guest post, Dr Teresa Webber of Trinity College, Cambridge outlines an interdisciplinary approach to course design in palaeography. 

The Teaching the Codex workshop in Oxford on 6th February 2016 fostered a dialogue across the disciplines about how elements of manuscript study pertinent to each field are currently being taught. Participants also reflected upon the strengths, weaknesses, and scope of current pedagogical approaches. All contributions affirmed that the study of script, and of the manuscripts in which written texts were recorded and disseminated, should be a core element of research training in each discipline. However, even among scholars from the same discipline, there were differences of emphasis regarding which aspects of palaeography and codicology should be prioritised. Of course, certain kinds of research may require more advanced levels of manuscript skill than a basic course can provide: the ability to decipher the more drastic forms of abbreviation proper to particular kinds of text, for example. Likewise, a student may need still further specialist skills beyond those purely concerning manuscripts: more extensive understanding of medieval Latin, say, or facility with textual criticism. Nevertheless, it is my experience that all students, whatever their discipline, benefit from a common core of introductory teaching that provides them with basic tools for using manuscript evidence. Moreover, such a training in basics is likely to alert them to any need for more specialised skills, and provides a firm foundation upon which to base the acquisition of those further skills.

I am currently in the process of restructuring my Masters-level teaching in Latin Palaeography (i.e. writing in the Roman alphabet) as part of a more general restructuring of the Cambridge MPhil in Medieval History. One of the reasons for this restructuring is to facilitate greater flexibility for students within the School of Arts and Humanities and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences so that they may take options from different MPhil courses in accordance with their particular needs. Currently, students taking the MPhils offered by the departments of Music and of Divinity are permitted to substitute the palaeography element of the Medieval History MPhil for one of the optional elements of their home department’s degree. The new structure should enable students on other MPhils, as well as PhD students, to do the same. My hope is to construct two introductory courses – one in palaeography and one in codicology – that will meet the basic needs of students from as many disciplines as possible, so as to demonstrate the significance of manuscript evidence and to provide a basis for further palaeographical study where that may be appropriate.

The new term-length introductory course in palaeography will provide students with an understanding of the purpose and methods of palaeography and a basic level of palaeographical expertise. In view of the time constraints of a one-year Masters, the course will offer a choice of chronological focus: (a) from the late Roman period until c. 1200 or (b) from c. 1000-c. 1500. The geographical scope for each is Latin Europe. Each course will comprise a series of lectures, and each lecture will be followed by a practical class. The lectures will provide (i) an introduction to the place of palaeography within the various disciplines that focus upon texts and written culture; to the principles and limitations of palaeographical methodology as a means of classifying, dating and localising script, and to the relevant terminology and vocabulary for describing script; (ii) a historically-contextualised survey of developments in script and scribal conventions in Latin Europe within the chosen period, and (iii) information concerning published scholarship, facsimiles and online resources. The lectures on the earlier period will end with a coda on 15th-century humanistic script as an archaising hand based upon the handwriting of c. 1100, while the lectures on the later period will begin with a brief introduction to the earlier traditions of handwriting upon which scribal practice c. 1000 was based. The classes will focus upon the practical skills of script- and letter-recognition and transcription, including a grasp of the more common forms of abbreviation used by scribes in both books and documents. I hope that such a course will provide students with sufficient knowledge to know what further expertise they may need to acquire (through additional courses or through independent learning), whom they should consult, and what resources exist in print and online from which they may learn.

This palaeography course will be a compulsory element of the MPhil in Medieval History, but all students, whatever their degree or discipline, will be able to audit the course, or, where applicable, take it as a formal part of their own degree. The palaeography course may be supplemented by another (also lasting one term, and which can also either be audited or taken as a formal option) on codicology, broadly conceived: that is, on the material forms in which texts were recorded and have been preserved. This course, taught in situ with the physical artefacts (both codices and single-sheet documents), will focus upon their physical complexities; the presentation and collocations of texts (literary and administrative), and questions of medieval ownership, dispersal and loss.

I would stress that this proposed teaching is in no way a substitute for the teaching of Latin, just as it would not be seen as a substitute for the teaching of any of the medieval vernacular languages. As was emphasised at the workshop, expertise in palaeography and expertise in the languages in which the contents of manuscript books and documents are written are both fundamental requirements, but they are different specialisms; as with palaeography, the levels of expertise required in each will differ according to the particular area of research. The introductory palaeography course that I am planning is one that I hope will be of value to as wide a constituency as possible. I would therefore greatly value comments from both students (past and present) and teachers as to whether the structure I have in mind would be helpful, and, if so, whether it addresses the needs of those at the start of their research in the most effective manner.

Teresa Webber, Trinity College, University of Cambridge


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