Palaeography in Practice

Miriam van der Molen, Archivist

In April 2019, Special Collections & Archives acquired three medieval German legal manuscripts. I have chosen these three manuscripts to show the challenges to the archivist, and what skills are needed, in working with deciphering palaeography, on these types of documents. The documents are from 1344, 1370 and 1371. All of the documents are written in a cursive script, with those from 1344 and 1371 being as good as identical in the letter forms used.

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Legal Document from 22 May 1344

The oldest document, from 22 May 1344, follows a formula common for German legal documents of the time, opening with ‘Kundich by allen Luden dey dyssen breyf seyt ofte horet lesen dat ich Hinrich van Haidenberghe bekenne […]’, which can be loosely translated as ‘I inform all people that see or hear this document read out, that I, Hinrich van Haidenberghe attest […]’. He later mentions a churchyard at ‘Welynkhouen’ and people ‘Johan van Bachem’ and ‘Wenember van Bachem’.

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Legal Document from 19 February 1371

The document from 19 February 1371 also follows the same opening formula: ‘Kundich by allen Luden dey dyssen breyf seyt ofte horet lesen dat ich Ludcke van den Hoynhus […]’. Interestingly, this document also mentions Wenemer van Bachem, this time without a ‘b’ in the first name, which is typical of the lack of consistency in spelling at this time. Another typical inconsistency is in the use of upper and lower case letters, such as in that first line: in the 1344 document, ‘horet’ is spelt with a lower case ‘h’, whereas it is written with an upper case ‘H’ in the 1371 document.

There appears to be a mix of secretary and legal hand usage in the documents as well, and here there is also no consistency: the 1371 document uses a two-compartment ‘a’ in the third word ‘allen’, which is typical of a legal hand, but a single-compartment ‘a’ later on in that line for ‘dat’, but reverts to the earlier ‘a’ again in ‘van’ near the end of the first line.

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Legal Document from 24 June 1370

The third document, from 1370, is a little different. The script is different, as is the way in which the document text is structured. One can note the slightly more rounded letter forms. In additional, while the 1344 and 1371 documents use two different types of ‘r’ (compare ‘breyf’ and ‘horet’), the 1370 seems to stick to one type, namely that to be seen in ‘breyf’ in the other two documents. The ‘r’ that looks like a ‘2’ would be that used in a legal hand, while the other one is more typical of secretary hand. An example of this in the 1370 document is in ‘openbare’, the twelfth word on the first line. As an unrelated item of interest, you can also see that somebody sewed together a large tear which occurred at the bottom of this document.

Deciphering palaeography is very interesting, but also difficult and takes a lot of time and getting used to the letter forms. It is especially hard if one does not speak the language of the text. As I speak modern German, this helped, but it is still hard, as it is when trying to read fourteenth century English, which can be quite different to modern English.

The documents will be on display in the glass cabinet outside the Special Collections and Archives Reading Room for the month of December.


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