On My First Introduction to Paleography

Paleography is one of the branches of scholarship, and one where I’ve had comparatively little experience.

Paleography is essentially the study of old manuscripts, and one of the most fascinating branches of literary study.

I was actually shocked at how wildly inaccurate my impression of paleography was when I first began to examine old texts (or rather, detailed scans of old texts). The text in question is a medieval text that has survived in relatively good condition in multiple manuscripts, which makes things much easier.

One of my on-campus jobs is proof-reading for an English professor, who recently began to induct her assistants into the world of HTML and old manuscripts. We received a little training on how to read old scripts and then were turned loose to figure the rest out for ourselves.

I have never before appreciate the work of transcribers and the good scholars who produce learned editions of old texts. When I first looked at this page of text, I could barely comprehend any of it. It is Middle English, first of all, so there are plenty of unfamiliar words. Secondly, literally every other word is an abbreviation for something else, and the use of symbols rendered things even more incomprehensible.

Diphthongs such as “ie,” “ea,” or “ou” are often written as tiny little dots above the word, or as slashes above the word. Sometimes, a single slash can indicate up to three options. There are also many standalone symbols such as & that indicate entire words, some of which are peculiar to the scribe.

There are also many variations of scripts that different scribes would use, which can be rather idiosyncratic. Scribes then adopt a script and then make it even more idiosyncratic with their own personal writing style.

Hence, my respect for scholars who produce the texts that I study so obsessively have had to spend many, many painstaking hours transcribing the texts and sometimes guessing as to what word they’re looking at because the original text is so incomprehensible.

I encounter corrupt texts pretty often in reading Greek tragedy. There are many, many examples in all three tragedians where transcribers had to guess at what a word was, and thus the meaning of the text is forever a mystery unless someone happens to stumble on a likely emendation.

Yet, at the same time, the fact that we do still have vestiges of ancient texts that are as accurate as they are is an amazing thing. We can still know what most of the text is saying, even if parts of it are questionable.

Nevertheless, this is largely owing to the painstaking labor of those scholars who consider things these worthwhile and have spent their entire lives learning how to read old texts and decipher them.

This is yet another reason why studying the classics is worthwhile. Modern scholars stand on an incredible edifice that represents thousands of years of painstaking labor to preserve what thousands of generations have considered worthwhile and beautiful.


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