Thursday, March 15, 2007

Our Own Medieval History

As Medieval Writing is getting very close to registering 100,000 clicks on the home page, I continue to be amazed at the interest in this esoteric material. No, that is not a very big number compared with a YouTube video of Britney baring her unmentionables, but it is a lot more than I ever expected to be interested in medieval paleography, especially as many users don't use the home page but get in via Google to internal pages, or have bookmarked their favourite areas like the script index.
Here in Australia there can be a bit of a funny attitude to medieval history. I was once asked at a dinner party by a supposedly educated English person why I wasn't interested in my own history. I would hardly have thought it necessary to point out that we Australians of British and European heritage did not crawl out from under a rock in 1788, and European medieval history IS our history. Unfortunately, our politicians currently have the same illogical, blinkered mentality and are rabbiting on to the media about how our youngsters need to learn more Australian history, meaning anything after Captain Cook. Medieval history is being put under severe pressure in universities all over the country. Never mind that this era represents the birthplace of our languages, our art and architecture, our literature, our law, our moral codes and the religious beliefs and practices that underpin them, and our system of government. I have a horrible feeling that politicians are not actually interested in any of that, and think that civilisation began with the birth of consumerist economics.
Intriguingly, it is not lack of interest among potential students that is putting the pressure on. Those of you out there who are using these modern communications techniques to learn about old history also give us hope that our genuine cultural history will not be forgotten.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Classification of Scripts

On Medieval Writing I had originally intended to produce a broad outline of the history of scripts and their classification, and then zoom in on specific areas to explain them in more detail. However, while there are broad chronological and geographical trends in the history of handwriting styles, variation is really on a continuum. The closer you look, the more the concept of distinctive named classes of handwriting seems to be an illusion.
Paleography is a subject of many detailed expertises, and researchers may develop elaborate classificatory schemes within their own area of expertise, be it the insular minuscule family, Gothic book hands or the varieties of what used to be called English court hand. Such writers may then dismiss the rest of the literate world in very broad classificatory strokes. Furthermore, even the experts do not necessarily agree on the terminology within their own specialities.
Another problem is that certain geographical areas or types of writing have been heavily studied and written about, while others are known only to the most esoteric of experts. For example, how did they write in medieval Poland or Hungary or Bohemia? I seem to be doing most of my research on Spanish paleography on eBay!
I'm not quite sure how to attack this problem on the website, especially in relation to the development of cursive hands of the later middle ages. Nevertheless, hopefully there will be some valiant attempts as I try to make sense of the mounds of original handwritings and photographic reproductions that are piled in my study. The results my be quite radical.