Manuscripts and Special Collections

Reading and Understanding Medieval Documents

February 16th, 2011 at 08:02

Detail from WLC/LM/9, f. 199r

Detail from Pa L 2

If you think you can’t read the two texts above, you are in good company. Most people would say that the handwriting is beautiful, that the documents as objects or artefacts are pleasing, but that they are impossible to read without a PhD. You might not even recognise that both are written in English!

It is true that you will need lots of practice, and will need to study Latin and perhaps French in order to become an absolute expert in reading British medieval documents. However, there is a lot that you can tell about an item just by looking at its external features. A few hints and tips can set you on your way to understanding more about medieval manuscripts and having the confidence to look at them in detail and begin to work out what they say.

A new web resource, Reading and Understanding Medieval Documents, has just been made available in the ‘Research Guidance’ area of our website. The resource contains information and advice about the format of medieval documents, the languages in which they were written, the features and devices used by medieval scribes to authenticate documents, marks of ownership and evidence for the custodial history of literary manuscripts, styles of handwriting used by scribes, and common abbreviations which can fox the novice researcher. Finally, there is a set of interactive palaeography exercises so that you can try your hand at deciphering short extracts from a variety of fifteenth-century English documents.

The resource was created jointly by Manuscripts and Special Collections staff, as part of the Wollaton Library Collection project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and by Dr Nicola Royan and Dr Joanna Martin of the School of English Studies at The University of Nottingham.

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