Dating and Locating Medieval Manuscripts (Some Basics)

by  Dr. Emerson Storm Fillman Richards-Hoppe

Most times, medieval manuscripts do not directly tell us where they were made. Occasionally, we will get a colophon, which is where the scribe writes his name and some times his location and date that he finished copying the text. The Raab Collection has held one example of a colophon, at the end of a circa 1300s early version of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologica. At the end of the index, the scribe, a Guillelmus Brito (William the Breton), wrote that he had finished the book and that work done out of love is no work at all. William’s name supported the attribution of the manuscript to France. Further below this colophon, an historic reader has refered to Thomas as “Brother Thomas” rather than “Saint Thomas”, indicating this reader was interacting with the manuscript before Thomas Aquinas was canonized in 1323.

However, most of the time, locating and dating medieval manuscripts comes down to an auxiliary science called paleography, the study of ancient handwriting (paleo= ancient; graph= writing). For example, the fragment of Aristotle currently offered by the Raab Collection relies on a knowledge of paleography and history to locate it to the university town of Oxford, England, in the 13th century.

One example of an English feature of this handwriting is the use of a crossed form of the Tironian et, a 7-shaped symbol, used as the Latin word et (and). The bar across the stem of the 7 is a feature that strongly suggests an English origin of the scribe.

Another English feature of the writing is the use of bifurcated ascenders. The tops of the letters I, shown below, demonstrate this forking which is a feature of Anglicana script, the script native to England.

Though most of the letters t throughout the manuscript were executed with a straighter, longer back and the bar extending to further to the right, we do have examples of a particularly uncial-style t, with a rounded back and the bar extending both left and right. This uncial letter appears in words such as fantasia and sentire.  The letter both points to the location and the early 13th century dating.

Being able to locate this script to England in the 1200s allows us to analytically place it within the cultural context— the fact the major universities were just beginning to form and show interest in the newly translated Aristotelian material, and that Oxford was the earliest English university— allows us to comfortably place the manuscript at Oxford during this time.

The science of paleography is a truly an artform with many moving parts over centuries and across borders. Sometimes the locatable feature of a script is as minute as two dots used for an abbreviation; sometimes it is as immediately obvious as the difference for us between Times New Roman and Comic Sans.


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