Reading in the Archives: The History and Methods of Paleography

Welcome to the new blog linked to the Stanford History Archival Workshop. Over the next few months we will collect information here about working with, in, or on archives.

Our first event on reading historic documents featured a presentation by David A. Jordan of the Stanford Libraries. Jordan presented materials from the latest publications about paleography, discussed some of the strange disciplinary fences that have been set up between paleography (manuscript codices), epigraphy (inscriptions and graffiti), diplomatics (charters and legal documents), numismatics (coins/medals), and sigillography (seals), papyrology (papyri), and codicology (books as material objects).

We looked at Sanford copies of Jean Mabillon (1632-1707), De re diplomatica libri VI (1789) and Thomas Astle (1735-1803), The origin and progress of writing… (1784): these books are among the earliest guides to the practice of paleography in the European tradition. Both used painstaking methods of printing ancient and medieval scripts using copper plates. Mabillon’s work was intended to assist professionals with weeding out forgeries from charters, deeds, and land grants (among other official documents) as they worked to verify property claims in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Astle’s book, more of a historical account, than guidebook, to scripts, may have appealed to the growing crowd of antiquarians in eighteenth century Europe.

Jordan is team-teaching a course on Medieval and Early Modern Paleography with Stanford English Professor George H. Brown. Students are lucky to have two recent books at their disposal as they learn to decipher manuscripts during the class:

  • Timothy Graham and Raymond Clemens, An Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007)
  • Albert Derolez, The Paleography of Gothic Manuscript Books: From the Twelfth to the early Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)

We also discussed digital initiatives in paleography and manuscript studies. Be sure to take a look at this recent publication: “Rome Wasn’t Digitized in a Day”: Building a Cyberinfrastructure for Digital Classicists by Alison Babeu (CLIR, 2011). Here are some links to efforts underway at Stanford:

More online resources for learning and practicing paleography and epigraphy (thanks to David Jordan for his additions to this list):

Medieval abbreviations made easy

Web for Medieval source-based textual scholarship

There are also well-known programs (usually in the summer) for students and scholars interested in working on paleography skills or manuscript/book history:


One thought on “Reading in the Archives: The History and Methods of Paleography

  1. Note that most of Astle’s plates were engraved from facsimiles drawn by Humfrey Wanley. whose great catalogue I trust featured in your class.

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