Writing is the common demarcation between what scholars consider “historical” and “pre-historical.” Writing in many ways gives us our history – our story about the past – without it we can still piece together events from the past, but the stories and voices of the past are silent without words. It is writing that preserves those words. The difficulty for researchers is that writing has undergone numerous changes since its first inception some 4500-5500 years ago. Paleography is the study and interpretation of ancient or old handwriting and manuscripts. It is part art, part science, part puzzle-solving, and part decoding.
If you conduct research in documents produced since 1850, many of the letter forms will be familiar, if not precisely like today’s letter forms. But as you move back in time, the letters grow increasingly foreign, even in your native language. It is at this point that you need the skills of a paleographer. Learning to read older scripts and to analyze the manuscripts written in those scripts are the two central skills of paleography. Everyone who undertakes research of the past – whether it is historical, genealogical, or literary – relies on the skills of paleography. Learning this skill is essential to enriching your understanding and interpretation of the past.
The tutorials and materials gathered here are meant to help a variety of people – students, researchers, historians, genealogists, and indexers – learn more about old scripts and how to make use of that knowledge to analyze and interpret the past. The concentration is on western European scripts, particularly those in use between 1500 and 1800. There is general introductory material about the history of writing and the development of different scripts (or hands) as well as extensive, and interactive, language-specific materials.
Learn more about the history of writing, manuscript production, and transcription techniques.
Practice your paleographic skills using language-specific, interactive exercises.