Palaeography, palæography (British), or paleography (American) (from the Greek παλαιός palaiós, "old" and γράφειν graphein, "to write") is the study of ancient handwriting, and the practice of deciphering and reading historical manuscripts.

Palaeography can be an essential skill for historians and philologists, as it tackles two main difficulties. First, since the style of a single alphabet has evolved constantly it is necessary to know how to decipher its individual characters. Second, scribes often used many abbreviations, usually so that they could write more quickly, and sometimes to save space, so the palaeographer must know how to interpret them. Knowledge about individual letter-forms, ligatures, punctuation and abbreviations enables the palaeographer to read the text as its producer intended it to be read. The palaeographer must know the language of the text and the historical usage of various styles of handwriting. Knowledge of writing materials is also essential to the ancient study of handwriting and the identification of the periods in which they are written. An important goal may be to assign the text a date and a place of origin: this is why the palaeographer must take into account the style and formation of the manuscript.

The first time the term "palaeography" was used was perhaps in 1703 by Bernard de Montfaucon, a Benedictine monk. During the 19th century palaeography fully separated from the science of diplomatics. Wilhelm Wattenbach and Leopold Delisle greatly contributed to this separation with their studies of the relationship between the human hand and writing. Their efforts were mainly directed at reconstituting "the ductus" — the movement of the pen in forming the letter — and to establish a genealogy of writing based on the historical developments of its forms.

Ancient Near East

Greek palaeography

Indian palaeography

North Indian palaeography

South Indian palaeography

The earliest attested form of writing in South India is inscriptions found in caves, associated with the Chalukya and Chera dynasties. These are in variants of what is known as the Cave character, and their script differs from the Northern version in being more angular. Most of the modern scripts of South India have evolved from this script, with the exception of Vatteluttu, whose exact origins are unknown, and Nandinagari, which is a variant of Devanagari that developed due to later Northern influence.

Aramaic palaeography

Latin palaeography


See the following articles:

Middle Ages

Prior to the time of Charlemagne several parts of Europe had their own handwriting style. His rule over a large part of the continent provided an opportunity to unify these writing styles in the hand called Carolingian minuscule. Simplistically speaking, the only scripts to escape this unification were the Visigothic (or Mozarabic), which survived into the twelfth or thirteenth century, the Beneventan, which was still being written in the middle of the sixteenth, and the one that continues to be used in traditional Irish handwriting, which has been in severe decline since the early twentieth century and is now almost extinct (the printed form was abolished by the Irish government in the 1950s).

In the twelfth century Carolingian minuscule underwent a change in its appearance to bold and broken Gothic letter-forms. This style remained predominant with some regional variants until the fifteenth century when the humanistic scripts revived a version of Carolingian minuscule and it spread from the Italian Renaissance all over Europe.

Further medieval scripts

Modern period

These humanistic scripts are the base for the antiqua and the handwriting forms in western and southern Europe. In Germany and Austria, the Kurrentschrift was rooted in the cursive handwriting of the later Middle Ages. With the name of the calligrapher Ludwig Sütterlin, this handwriting counterpart to the blackletter typefaces was abolished by Hitler in 1941. After World War II it was taught as alternative script in schools only in some areas until the 1970s; it is no longer being taught.

See also

External links


'Manual of Latin Paleography' (A comprehensive PDF file containing 77 pages profusely illustrated, August 2008).

Further reading

Western palaeography

  • Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • E. A. Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores: A Palaeographical Guide to Latin Manuscripts Prior to the Ninth Century, Clarendon Press, 1972.
  • Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography Clarendon Press, 1912.

Indian palaeography


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