Paleography and the evolution of the book

Medieval Jewish Book

There has been a buzz this week among medievalists over the fate of paleography, the study of ancient writing and book production, in the current cost cutting atmosphere. Kings College in London is threatening to end its paleography program including its endowed chair. This has lead to an uproar among medievalists all over the world. Kings College had the only known endowed chair in paleography in the world. By what odd logic leads universities to get rid of what makes them unique? Shouldn’t they be highlighting their uniqueness? Besides, how can you cut a endowed chair for financial reasons — its endowed. Someone else is paying his salary. I know some endowments don’t stipulate the field of the chair but really, endowments should be there to cover fields that may need economic support. Popular fields with lots of students don’t need their professors to be endowed. There is plenty of tuition and per-student government support to cover their faculty and staff.

Paleography has to be nurtured.It takes decades of study to be able to interpret and date ancient handwriting, to learn how to preserve ancient books and know how a book was assembled after it has been disassembled. They must understand earlier forms of many languages: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Old English, Old French, forms of Old German, etc. Paleographers in Britain would need to be able to recognize Latin, Old English, Middle English, early modern English, Old Welsh, Middle Welsh, Scots, Gaelic, and probably Old Irish.  Not only must they understand old languages but also old forms of writing. They also have to understand how books are assembled in all ages (before and after the printing press). It is both art and science.

Paleography has obvious implications for the study of prayerbooks and theology. Most obviously it is necessary to unravel books found anywhere from bogs in Ireland to caves in Israel or Egypt. While we all love beautiful books like the Jewish manuscript above, most books look like the magnified image where an illuminated initial is probably the only consistent decoration. Interpreting handwriting is the main thrust of paleography.

As digital books become more popular, how will society’s valuation of non-digital books change? As each generation becomes less familiar with books on paper (as they probably will 2-3 generations from now), paleography will be dealing with a world all the more foreign to contemporaries. On the one hand, there should be more respect for the specialty. However, as the proposed cutbacks in paleography today show, the more obscure the specialty is to those who value economics over all else, the more likely that funding will be cut and eventually the skill will be lost.

Once the transition to mostly digital books occurs, how will we all look at book organization differently? A book is the content within an object, between two covers. In early medieval books, there might be some widely differing content in one book. On the other hand because of the practicalities of book production, the entire bible was not contained in a single book (as anything other than a huge reference tome) until very late in the medieval period. So until the late medieval period most people knew the books of the bible literally as separate books that circulated separately. It could take an entire shelf of a bookcase or more to house the books of the bible. The printing press changed our perception of books. They now contain more content, are less unique, and are cheap enough for mass production, for the  masses to own them and to be produced in a wide variety of sizes etc. Miscellanies are less common unless they are planned to be that way (an anthology etc). In the digital world, a book is a bundle of data that is hyperlinked as a package.  Content does not necessarily flow linearly. With the iBCP there are already calls for it to be integrated with a bible so that all the readings automatically are linked or plugged into the BCP. In effect this would blend the BCP and the bible into one book. Since the BCP is the order and organization of liturgy, the bible would be reduced to reference snippets. How long before the organization of the bible ceases to mean much to the average user? How will the children of 2050 view “books”?  And won’t we need digital paleographers to sort out this new mess we are creating?