The discipline of reading medieval handwriting is called paleography (also spelled palaeography). This page offers a very brief introduction to this discipline, to allow you to complete the exercises in Platform 3. If you wish to continue your study of paleography, consult the relevant resources.
As you saw in the discussion of scripts, there are three different types of scripts that were used in the later Middle Ages in England. Of these, anglicana and secretary are the most frequently used to copy Middle English texts. Our discussion will focus on these two scripts. Remember, though, that even if he is using a particular script, each scribe has a distinctive hand. Every time you look at a new manuscript, you will need to become accustomed to the features of the scribe's (or scribes') hand(s).
Special letter forms
Some letter forms used in medieval scripts look very different from those we use today. Look at the letters below, and try to figure out what they are. Mouse over each letter to learn the correct answer.
Note that the same letter can have different forms, even when written by the same scribe. Study these letter forms, but do not be discouraged if you were unable to figure them out. Frequently, context is necessary to determine what a letter is, as we shall see below.
Special Middle English characters
Middle English uses certain special characters in its alphabet. These are:
thorn equivalent to “th”, and printed Þ
eth also equivalent to “th”, and printed ð
yogh which can be transcribed “gh” or “y,” and is printed ȝ
You should be aware of these characters and understand how to transcribe them. Older editions of Middle English texts often use these characters, but most recent editions silently transform them into their modern equivalents.
Medieval scribes used minims to form letters. A single minim looks like this:
Several minims can make up a single letter, or even a group of letters. In particular, minims are usually used for the following letters:
One minim: "i", "j"
Two minims: "n", "u", "v"
Three minims: "m", "w"
It is frequently difficult to know what letter or letters a group of minims represents unless you can determine the entire word from context. Look at the word below, and see if you can figure out what it is. Mouse over the image to learn the correct answer.
The leading "a" helps determine what the string of minims in the middle of the word must be. Now, try a harder one (hint: this word is Latin):
Although it looks at first glance like this word is composed entirely of minims, the two center characters are "ll." As you can see, scribes did not follow our practice of putting uniform spaces between characters, so sometimes minims from separate characters run together, or minims forming the same character will be separate.
Reading whole words
The discussion of minims showed you how important it is to look at whole words. Practice reading by trying to figure out what each of these words is. (Keep in mind that Middle English spelling varies.) Mouse over the image to learn the correct answer.
Note that the four minims making up the double "n" run together; context tells you what these letters must be. This word uses two forms of "s", long and short.
Reading a line
Of course, the fullest context comes from reading words within a text, where a sense of the general type and tenor of the text indicates what words you are likely to find. Try to read the following line, and mouse over to learn the correct answer:
Note the use of the Middle English character thorn (Þ):
Note that u and v are interchangeable in Middle English. Also, note the subtle difference between long "s" and "f":
Note the use of thorn (Þ) and yogh (ȝ):
In order to write more quickly, medieval scribes used a number of abbreviations. This section introduces you to some of the most common abbreviations you will find in Middle English texts.
A macron (¯) over a letter indicates a missing "m" or "n." Ex: the word "hym."
This symbol is frequently used to abbreviate the word "and."
This symbol is frequently used to abbreviate "con."
A final "r" will often appear above a word, as in "favor."
The digraph "er" or "ir" is indicated with a raised comma, as in the example below, which is read "tir."
Middle English articles starting with "th" (that, this, the, etc.) are sometimes abbreviated with a thorn on the main line, and the final letter of the word above it. Ex. the abbreviation for "that."
Finally, there are three abbreviations for "per," "pro," and "pre / pri," respectively. Study these carefully so you will be able to keep them distinct:
"Per" is "p" with a cross-stroke through the stem.
"Pro" is "p" with a loop behind the stem.
"Pri / Pre" is "p" with an inverted comma or minim above it.
Middle English uses punctuation idiosyncratically. While we think of punctuation such as commas, periods, and quotation marks as serving a syntactic function, in Middle English punctutation was often an aid to speaking. Each scribe may have a slightly different style of punctuating, but some general guidelines apply.
A punctus ("point") indicates a short pause. It can separate nouns in apposition, clauses, or, occasionally, sentences. Although it looks like our modern period, it acts more like a comma in most cases.
A punctus elevatus ("raised point") separates major syntactic units, like sentences. In this sense, it acts something like a period. It resembles an upside-down semi-colon.
Can you spot all three types of punctuation in the following example?
Finally, remember that the best way to learn paleography is to practice! Read as many manuscripts (or, online digital images of manuscripts) as you can to learn different conventions of medieval handwriting. The more you practice, the more proficient you will become.