PALEOGRAPHY (a word that derives from the Greek and that means “ancient writing”) is the discipline that studies the history of handwriting. Latin paleography studies the scripts written in the Latin alphabet (not only in Latin) from its origins, which date back approximately to the seventh century BC, and continue until the spread of movable type printing, at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The ancient scripts in the Latin alphabet are among the most important sources at our disposal for studying the history of humanity.
This pathway aims to help those who wish to learn to read and understand the ancient scripts written in the Latin alphabet.
Barb.lat.570, f. 11v, illumination with St. Matthew the Apostle intented on writing: the book, in the form of a codex, rests on a wooden tablet that serves as a desk. The evangelist holds in his right hand the calamus, dipping it in the inkpot, while in the left hand he holds a scraper to make small corrections.
For those who want to read it, a written record poses the same questions that anyone involved in research would ask. In the modern world of journalism, there are the so-called “5 Ws” used to guide journalists in writing their articles: “who?, what?, where?, when?, why?”. This rule is derived (and simplified) from antiquity. Cicero had formalized those questions in hexameter (“Quis, quid, ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando”). This has also been adopted by Thomas Aquinas (Summa theologiae, Ia IIae, q. 7, a. 3 co.), as well as by many others.
In paleography, the series of answers given in response to those questions is not always rigid. But in general it can be said that the palæographer should always try to provide an answer.
- QUIS, Who? Who is the scribe, that is, the person who physically wrote the text in the manuscript that we are examining? (When the person who actually writes the text is also the author of the text, we are dealing with an autograph; this would be a rather rare situation for the centuries treated here).
- QUID, What? What is written in the text we are examining? (This is about reading the text and transcribing it. There are various methods of transcription).
- UBI, Where? In which location, in which region was the manuscript written? (The terms location and origin are used in this regard).
- QUIBUS AUXILIIS, By what means? With what technique was the manuscript made? (In this context we also examine the material aspect of the manuscript. The discipline that deals with these aspects is called codicology).
- CUR, Why? What were the causes and for what purposes was the manuscript made? (This context also considers writing as part of the culture that produced or used it, and therefore also includes the spread of writing and its function).
- QUOMODO, How? With which technique was the writing carried out? (The expression “technique of the graphic act” is also used).
- QUANDO When? In what period was the writing done? (It is necessary to date the writing to as narrow a period as possible. there are also dated manuscripts, that is, when a date is expressed in the manuscript itself, or datable when the date can be deduced from other documentation external to the manuscripts; when a date that is more or less precise can be indicated using different methods, which are studied in the discipline of chronology).