Why does paleography work, and how did we get it?

Paleography is a technique for dating hand-written copies of ancient or medieval texts by looking at the way that the actual text is written; the shapes of the letters, abbreviations used, and so on.

I’ve found by experience that laymen often don’t understand how it works, or why it works.  Only yesterday I came across a book by a German crank asserting that Augustine’s Confessions, composed before 400 AD, were in fact written by Anselm in the 11th century.  The existence of physical copies written before that – the earliest copy of the Confessions is in fact 6th century[1] – was dismissed airily; the copies were dated using paleography, and paleography was bunk.[2]  It’s not an uncommon mistake in certain circles.

I’m not a paleographer, and I only understand the fundamentals.  But I’d like to share what I have, in hopes of minimising further crass errors.

So how does it work?

Many things are best understood when we know what the problem was that gave rise to them.

After the end of the Reformation in France, and in the century before the French Revolution, the country was governed as a Catholic autocracy by the Bourbon dynasty.  The church held wide lands, much wealth, and great power.  The nobility and the various monastic orders fought among themselves to acquire yet more, under the smiling gaze of the Sun King or the other royal despots.  Junior or more recently founded orders like the Jesuits naturally found themselves at odds with older ones like the Benedictines.

The Jesuit Daniel Papebroch advanced the claim that many of the old charters, granting lands to these orders, were in fact forgeries.  Among them he listed a grant by an early Merovingian king to the Benedictine order dated 590 AD.  Of course this was no mere bit of scholarly noodling; if true, vast wealth would pass out of the hands of the order and back into royal hands.

The Dominican order took this as what it was, an attack on the privileges of the church.  They demanded that the inquisition investigate Fr Papebroch.

The Benedictine order took a different view.  The ancient Benedictine houses of France had regrouped as the Congregation of St Maur, with their headquarters in Paris at the abbey of St.Germains-des-Pres, and had emphasised scholarship.  So they saw the claim as an intellectual challenge.  The task of defending the order was given to Dom Jean Mabillon.

Mabillon quickly realised that all the medieval charters, and indeed medieval books, were written in a variety of forms of writing, even though the language was always Latin.  The letter forms differed.  Here are some examples:[3]

Roman square capitals
Carolingian minuscule

Mabillon theorised that the types of “book hand” changed over time; and also that they changed from country to country, (although in fact the location proved less important).  So he compiled a big reference volume, consisting of examples of the writing from charters or books that he could date.

It’s possible to date most charters.  They come with a signature at the bottom, of somebody important, and often with a phrase like “Given at our court in Aachen on the 23rd of May, 840” or something like that.  Likewise books may have a note at the end such as “Completed by the monk Ernald in the eight hundred and twentieth year of our Lord.”  Of course the dates may be forged – that’s the question  before us – but they can’t ALL be forged!

So Mabillon started with these.  He drew up examples, with their stated dates.  And … bingo!  He was suddenly able to see, what no man had ever seen: the change of scripts over time from antiquity to his own period.

Because of the volume of data, he could see what the real book-hand was at various periods.  And, armed with this, the forgeries stuck out like sore thumbs.  Because the forgers did NOT have Mabillon’s knowledge of old scripts and the dates in which they were in use.  Indeed they didn’t actually know that scripts varied, or why.  So whatever they did, they were screwed.  It was possible to see, at a glance, that many of the early charters were indeed not what they appeared to be.  In fact the Merovingian charter that had provoked all this was shown to be written in a later hand.[4]   It was now possible, using this database, to date many other books that had no scribal note at the bottom.

Mabillon published his data and results in 1681 in his book, De re diplomatica.  It met with universal approval.  Even Papebroch hailed it as an achievement.

This was the birth of paleography.  The word itself had to wait until Mabillon’s colleage, Dom Bernard de Montfaucon, did the same task for Greek manuscripts, which he published under the title of Paleographia Graeca.

To this day, paleography adopts the same method.  The first step, in creating a paleography for any culture, is still to create an album of “dated and dateable manuscripts” – this phrase appears in the title -, with pictures of the scripts.

The next step was to refine these broad-brush classifications.  This indeed is what paleographers still do.  Parchment is expensive, so most documents and books were abbreviated with signs like “&” for “and”; or space was saved by the use of “ligatures”.  Today we have only one or two of these: “æ” for “a” and “e” saves a precious bit of space.  But there were hundreds of abbreviations and ligatures; and these too varied over time and space.  This also gives us information with which to localise the production of a book.

There are limits to the method, which are obvious.  A scribe may be active for 25 years, and write the same script in which he was trained over the whole of that period, even if a new style has come in.  Paleography becomes more unreliable, the smaller the database, the shorter the time-span.  Inevitably subjective judgements creep in.  How closely a document may be dated by paleography may be questioned.  But I would imagine that we can reduce the date to within a century without too much difficulty in most cases.  A specialist might do better.

It is often asked why carbon dating is not used instead.  But of course it was not available to scholars in 1681, or indeed until very recently.  Even then, the accuracy of carbon dating is often no better than paleography.  A further problem is that carbon dating will give the date at which the parchment was harvested, not the date at which the text was written.  Parchment was reused for centuries.  Also carbon dating requires the destruction of a portion of the book or charter, which rarely is acceptable to the owners.  Finally paleography may also give us the monastery at which an item was written, which carbon dating cannot.  But this is an area in which technology is progressing.  The size of the sample needed is reducing all the time, and probably there will be more carbon dating of manuscripts in future.

Paleography is a valuable part of the scholar’s toolbox.  It will continue to be so, for the foreseeable future.

  1. [1]Michael M. Gorman, “Aurelius Augustinus: The testimony of the oldest manuscripts of Saint Augustine’s works”, Journal of Theological Studies 35 (1984), 475-480, JSTOR: “Rome Biblioteca Nationale Centrale,Sessorianus 55 (S, CLA 4, 420a), probably written in Spain in the second half of the sixth century, is the oldest manuscript of St. Augustine’s Confessiones (fos. 1-79v).14 The words ‘Confessionum sancti Augustini libri XIII’ appear in a subscription of fol. 79v.”
  2. [2]Hermann Dettering, O du lieber Augustin: Falsche Bekenntnisse?, Alibri (i.e. self-published), 2015. ISBN 978-3-86569-181-1.  I have not seen the book, but a 2014 interview with Detering may be found here: “Q: Auch wenn wir Ihrer Textanalyse und der daran anknüpfenden Indizienkette bis hierhin folgen, so bleibt für Ihre These das Problem, dass die “Confessiones” in anderen Werken des frühen Mittelalters genannt werden und Abschriften vorliegen, die ins 9. Jahrhundert datiert werden – also vor Anselm…  Die Datierung der Handschriften erfolgt durchweg auf paläographischer Grundlage d.h. sie basiert auf der Schriftanalyse. Ich blende dieses Problem keineswegs aus, sondern überlasse dem Leser die Entscheidung: Er kann sich entweder auf die internen Argumente, d.h. auf seine Vernunft verlassen – oder aber auf die Kunst der Paläographen, die geirrt haben – und immer noch irren. Ich gebe in meinem Buch ein markantes Beispiel dafür. Man sollte nicht glauben, dass mittelalterliche Autoren, die unter falschem Namen schrieben, nicht gewusst hätten, wie sie ihren Texten ein archaisierendes Aussehen geben konnten, um sich in den Augen der Leser und selbst späterer Fachleute als “authentisch” zu empfehlen.” — “Q: Even if we follow your textual analysis and the related chain of indications so far, your thesis remains the problem that the “Confessions” in other works of the early Middle Ages are called and copies are available, which are dated to the 9th century – before Anselm …  The dating of the manuscripts is done on a paleographic basis, i.e. it is based on the handwriting analysis. I by no means exclude this problem, but leave the decision to the reader: it can either rely on the internal arguments, i.e. rely on his reason – or on the art of paleographers who have erred – and still wrong. I give a striking example in my book. One should not believe that medieval writers who wrote under a false name did not know how to give their texts an archaic appearance, in order to be “authentic” in the eyes of readers and even later experts.”  I owe knowledge of this to posts on the Vridar site, run by a fraternity who hope that Jesus never existed.
  3. [3]I have borrowed all of these from this marvellous site
  4. [4]In fairness, this did not mean that it was a forgery.  The passion for paperwork originated with the Normans, rather later on.  Illiterate kings may well have given grants of land orally.  But once paperwork was important, the monks then found it necessary at a later date to record them in writing.  On the other hand forgery of legal documents was rife during the middle ages.