Spot the differences. Playing with medieval handwriting.

Spot the differences. Playing with medieval handwriting – by Ainoa Castro, King’s College London

I don’t know whether this happens to you too, but for me, as a trained paleographer, to carry out a palaeographical analysis is like playing an amazing game that allows me to get a glimpse in what was the daily life of a medieval scribe. Through understanding his/her writing, I grow a strange feeling of deep comprehension, a long-distance bond that automatically builds between him/her many centuries ago and me/ourselves today, processed by my paleographic eye into new data from which to reconstruct his/her professional career and cultural context. Moreover, when working with a manuscript source from which it can be supposed a collaboration amongst scribes, aka a codex, the game becomes even better. We’ve the opportunity of not only get in touch with a scribe but also to play ‘spot the differences’ to distinguish his/her work from that of a coeval colleague. While analysing the manuscript, we suddenly see something different, our eye recognises that something had changed through the folios, the columns, or even the lines, and then our brain starts processing that information until there’s a eureka moment when we clearly see the differences among hands and then we exclaim “gotcha!”. Isn’t this awesome? We get the changes. We understand that in a specific moment a specific scribe started working in a copy of a codex until by some reason we’ll eventually try to discern another scribe continued. We’re then faced with many questions: Why the change? What was the relation between a scribe and that who continued his or her stint? Why even though they’re different hands they look so similar? Or, why even being in the same scriptorium at the same time they look so different? Who taught them to write? How? Who were they?

I don’t usually work with codices but with charters. For those, in my corpus of Visigothic script sources, it’s rare to find scribal collaboration, even to find the same scribe in different charters. However, the research project I’m working on now entails the palaeographic analysis of a codex, the Beatus kept at the British Library ms. Ad. 11695 (copied between 1091 and 1109 in the monastery of Silos). And this indeed is a product of scribal collaboration I’m still trying to fully unveil. Initially, it has always been thought the Beatus was copied by two scribes as so they’re identified in the colophon of the codex (ff. 277v-278r). But, surprisingly, that’s not accurate, or, at least, I don’t think it is. I identified two main hands, who copied almost all the work, but there’re also some folios, some lines, that just don’t fit as a product of these main two. To what extent can I/we be sure?

Case study 1: play the differences because, spoiler alert, it’s not the same scribe.



© British Library, Add. ms. 11695. f. 40v vs. f. 41r

We palaeographers are serious people who have a method to conduct graphic analysis, just in case you were doubting my word about this two examples not being the same hand. Between these two scribes there are many similarities, as I’m sure your eyes are telling your brain, but also many significant dissimilarities. To begin with, the general aspect of both – if you look at the whole folio and not just at the cutting above – differs. The hand on the left isn’t as elegant as that on the right, and that results in him using a myriad of allographs for almost each letter. If you look at the majuscule alphabet, you will find that the hand on the left clearly tries to emulate the design used by his fellow scribe on the right, but some strokes are difficult for him to accomplish. Comparing the abbreviation system is when one clearly realises they’re two hands. But, how’s that they’re so similar? Were they master and pupil? Was the one on the left trying to imitate the other one for a reason? Why?


Case study 2: now you should play the similarities because, spoiler alert too, it’s the same scribe.

© British Library, Add. ms. 11695. f. 155r vs. f. 200v

© British Library, Add. ms. 11695. f. 155r vs. f. 200v

Again, I assure you I/we have a method. They’re the same scribe. This’s a very interesting and quite funny hand I guess very few times one has the pleasure to find because he has a consistent set of graphic forms, abbreviations, and even punctuation but just sometimes seems something was wrong with him. What makes you wonder, what happened? I have the feeling that every time he started copying, let’s say every day he resumed his task, he somehow collapsed until, after a few lines, he recovered his ability to copy the text in a very elegant manner. Can that be possible? Why?

All my insights about the hands who intervened in the copy of the BL Beatus will be put together in an article I’ll let you know about soon. I hope you find it as amusing as I do!



One thought on “Spot the differences. Playing with medieval handwriting.

  1. Pingback: ViGOTHIC: collaboration among scribes in the BL Beatus - Littera Visigothica

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