Most medievalists have been shaken by Kings College London’s decision to discontinue the chair of palaeography as part of its disinvestment in “sub-critical” areas. I can appreciate the reasoning: the university is going to see its funding cut my hundreds of millions over the next few years. However, losing palaeography would be an intellectual and educational disaster. About 4,000 people have joined the Facebook group set up to protest against the move and to promote a letter-writing campaign to ensure the chair is retained. I’m convinced at least two people will submit their letters in a style like this:
Palaeography, at its most basic, is the study of reading and interpreting manuscripts. It’s a lot more complicated than that, though. In archives and universities all over the world are thousands of manuscripts written over perhaps 1,000 years in untold numbers of handwriting styles and languages. And we’re not even counting abbreviations, some of which are particular to individual schools in single countries (incidentally, using numbers in the place of a sound, a la text messaging, began in this era, if not before). At a workshop last year, I was told that the vast majority of manuscripts haven’t even been read in centuries, or at least not in a way that’s left some sort of academic or scholarly record.
Every piece of classical and medieval literature that we have left was recorded on such a manuscript. Think of all the knowledge, history, and books that we would have lost out on had somebody not been able to acquire the skills to read and interpret these manuscripts – and that’s not even getting in to discussions of wonderful illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells, any number of Books of Hours (the list is practically endless).
This isn’t a skill that could just be picked up again in twenty or thirty years time with some new lust for the past. Go on, have a go at reading this page of Piers Plowman (as found on Wikipedia):
It’s also worth having a look at the Schaffhausen Adomnán, a manuscript of the Life of Columba that is unusual in that it was produced very soon after the Life itself in about AD700 – in fact the Schaffhausen manuscript (nobody is really sure how it ended up in Switzerland, considering it was produced on Iona off the coast of Scotland) is signed by one of Adomnán’s colleagues, Torbene, who was the scribe.
What a waste it would be to be surrounded by stories and yet be unable to read them. That is the future, should palaeography be allowed to wither away.
(Note: Life of Columba photos were taken by the ArCH project at UCC, which has produced facsimile editions of these rare manuscripts).