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Basics: Latin Paleography

Section 1: Overview; Branches of Manuscript Study


This lesson introduces the basic terminology needed to describe scripts and letters, and the physical features of the pages that carry them. The first goal of this lesson is to explain the terms we will use in subsequent lessons to talk about the features of scripts, the differences between them, and the differences in the ways they are laid out on the manuscript page.

A secondary goal is to equip you to understand descriptions of scripts by scholars in other paleographical handbooks and in manuscript descriptions. Paleographers have used and continue to use a bewildering variety of terms, sometimes in contradictory and inscrutable ways, and scholars of typography have yet another set of terms for describing typefaces and printed letters. In this course, we aim to teach a limited set of terms that would be understood by most Anglo-American scholars who work with manuscripts. Once you become familiar with how we use these terms to describe scripts and letterforms in this course, you should be better equipped to understand other scholars' descriptions of scripts, even if their terminology is slightly different.

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1394, p. 12. (www.e‑


Paleography is the study of ancient and medieval handwriting. More broadly, it encompasses all aspects of the study of the manuscript book.

Codicology is the study of the physical characteristics of the manuscript book, or codex, apart from its script and letterforms per se. Some schools of codicology focus on the codex as a complete object, while others are more interested in the design of the manuscript page, or mise en page — the French term for page layout.

Diplomatic is a special branch of paleography devoted to the study of charters — both their script and their formulaic language.

Papyrology is the study of the script and material form of documents and texts written on papyrus in the ancient world.

This course concentrates on paleography in the sense of the history of script, with an emphasis on scripts used in books in late antiquity and the Middle Ages. We discuss codicology mainly in the sense of page layout, emphasizing changes over time in the way script and text are deployed on the page.

The emphasis on the page, as opposed to the three-dimensional codex, is because we are preparing you for an encounter with the medieval manuscript which is, in the first instance, digital: when you use online manuscript collections, you encounter the medieval book as a collection of digitized pages. In the lessons that follow, you will learn to recognize and describe scripts and characteristics of the whole manuscript page, and to associate these scripts and page layout features with particular times and places from antiquity to the Renaissance.

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1394, p. 12.

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 116, p. 3.
Köln, Erzbischöfliche Diözesan- und
Dombibliothek, Cod. 139, f. 21r.
Geneva, Bibliothèque de Genève, MS fr. 1/2, f. 1r.