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Doing Paleography

Paleography. The core of any manuscript course. The source of angst in any manuscript course. I have clear and painful memories of going home with tired eyes and a splitting headache after muddling through Roman cursives or Visigoth minuscule in my grad paleography class. It makes sense to train graduate students in medieval studies to decipher Luxeuil minuscule, even when their specialty is in late France; understanding how scripts evolved and how they were formed at different periods provides crucial context for later developments (and it makes you appreciate Carolingian minuscule!)

But what about undergraduates — especially those who aren’t medievalists in training? Do they need to be able to differentiate Gothic from Protogothic at a glance, or read insular cursive minuscule? I take a very pragmatic, Conservation of Time and Energy approach to the question in my classes: what hands am I going to ask them to transcribe later in the semester? Let’s focus on those. We’ll spend a little time talking about why Charles is so Great (from a paleographic perspective) and what the humanists thought they were doing when they created their book scripts, but we’ll channel our energies productively: into Gothic textualis in its different forms, and into related vernacular scripts we may encounter. I need my students able to transcribe textualis accurately by the end of the semester – so Corbie AB has got to go. I think we’ll survive.

(Really, this blog post is just an occasion to show the “Choreography” dance sequence from White Christmas. I would totally give extra credit to any student who could rewrite and perform this piece for paleography.)