Medieval Writing
Dating Manuscripts
We are very particular about dating our written productions today. Books will have a date of publication entered, along with a list of the dates of all previous editions if we have been so lucky. Magazines and newspapers have dates. Dates are essential to all legal and business documents, otherwise the toaster would not know when the warranty had expired so it could burn out.
quo warranto?
terence The dating of manuscript material from the medieval era can be a bit more tricky. As far as books are concerned, because of the long chains of transcription through the ages, the date of authorship of a work and the date of production of any particular copy have no particular relationship, except that the former must come first. Material from Classical Rome was transcribed for a thousand years and more. Finding the oldest extant version of a work can be a complex detective enterprise.
Illustration from a 12th century copy of the Classical comedies of Terence (Bodleian Library, Auct. F.2.13, f.105). (From New Palaeographical Society 1905)
Sometimes a date may be entered in a scribe’s colophon, indicating the date of transcription of a manuscript
Catalogue descriptions of monastic libraries may be consulted in order to discover when a work was entered and what information was entered about it. Some such catalogues exist from the middle ages, in manuscript form. Others were compiled by the antiquarians who first picked over the wreckage of the monastic libraries after they were dissolved or dispersed. Identifying particular manuscripts with ones that have been described may be aided if they contain inscriptions which give the names of owners at particular times.
monastic catalogue Introduction to a 15th century catalogue of the Premonstatensian monastery of Titchfield. This section describes the layout of the library and the letters on the shelves. From the library of the Duke of Portland. (From New Palaeographical Society 1903)
Scholars from a more leisurely age who obviously didn’t have dinners to cook or horses to feed have compiled a vast amount of factual data on such matters, which resides in dusty old journals that your university library may be tempted to dispose of in order to replace them with trendy modern discourses. Do not let them do it. These resources can never be replaced.
Manuscripts can be dated, to a certain level of accuracy, by examining their scripts. I was once fortunate enough to attend a paleography school run by Christopher de Hamel in which we were taught to play “The Paleography Game”, which more or less involves betting on your own degree of accuracy at dating scripts. It was invented in the hallowed halls of academe, or more likely the hallowed pubs, and is no doubt infinitely amusing if accompanied by schooners of port as forfeits. The point of the game is actually that the degree of accuracy of dating scripts is a bit wobbly, even when comparing with known examples. (See Watson 1979)

Changes in calligraphic fashion did not happen cataclysmically. There were trendy modern scribes and stuffy old fashioned scribes at any point in time, and there were scribes who could write modern or traditional, depending on how you wanted it. Nevertheless, there are general patterns that can be used to date handwriting, provided you are not too ambitious.

Details of the history of scripts are in the What Is Paleography? section.

For illuminated manuscripts, stylistic analysis of the decoration also helps to provide a date. This is a huge area of study, but there are some things that jump out at even the observant amateur, although the question of why certain fashions come and go is more complicated.
For example, why do the hems of garments on late Anglo-Saxon illustrations go into such frilly curves?
Anglo-Saxon hem
Figure from a calendar illustration for January in the early 11th century Julius Calendar (British Library, Cotton Julius A VI, f.3a). By permission of the British Library.
lion initial Why in the 12th century did they like to do initials in a motif that looks like a lion eating spinach?
Lion initial from a late 12th century version of Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus "De Vita Caesarum" (British Library, Egerton 3055, f.2). By permission of the British Library.
monkey driving czrt Why are the borders of 14th century manuscripts of great significance and solemnity adorned with mad monkeys, birds with their heads in pots and strange creatures that look as if they were invented by a medieval Dr Seuss?
furry footed fiddler A monkey drives a cart and a creature with strange furry feet plays a fiddle in the borders of pages of the 14th century Luttrell Psalter, now in the British Library. (From New Palaeographical Society 1904).
flowers Why, in the 15th century, did they go so crazy on flowers?
Flower motifs in the border of an abstract of agreement between Henry VII and the abbot and convent of Westminster (British Library, Harley 1498, f.76). By permission of the British Library.
There are technical terms for all these things, and hundreds more beside, but anyone can look and create their own mental visual encyclopedia.


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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last updated 10/1/2005.