A Beginner’s Guide to Digital Palaeography of Medieval Manuscripts
A Beginner’s Guide to Digital Palaeography of Medieval Manuscripts

A Beginner’s Guide to Digital Palaeography of Medieval Manuscripts

[Header Image: Cambridge, Queen’s College MS C.13.16]

Today, together with my colleagues, Heather Wacha, Sarah Bond, and Katherine Tachau, I led a workshop on “Latin Paleography and Transcription”, under the auspices of the University of Iowa Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio. The workshop celebrated the launch of a new feature of UI’s DIY History website: a translation feature to join the site’s pre-existing transcription function. It also introduced participants to the hundreds of medieval Latin manuscript leaves held at the University of Iowa Special Collections, but which DIY History now makes available worldwide to students, scholars, and anyone with an interest in the Middle Ages. This is a great new tool for both research and teaching.

Palaeography is the study of historical handwriting; reading archaic hands is a highly necessary skill for historians, but one that takes a lot of practice to acquire. Digital tools can help make it easier for a budding medievalist to get to grips with sources in the original, both in terms of transcription and of translation. They can also help more established scholars to push discussion of manuscripts in new directions, by allowing for the easier comparison of a whole corpus of digitised manuscripts, their letter forms, and internal structures.

The resources listed here are some of those which I touched on in the workshop. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but one designed to provide a jumping off point for future exploration of digitized manuscripts.

British Library Cotton Caligula A.xv, f. 132r.
British Library Cotton Caligula A.xv, f. 132r.


DigiPal is designed to allow you to see samples of handwriting from the period and to compare them with each other quickly and easily. It is focused on eleventh-century English hands, like the one in the manuscript pictured left. It uses lots of different kinds of annotations applied to individual letter forms or symbols so that you can really drill down and compare different manuscripts on a fine-grained level. This is good practice for working out how to identify individual scribal hands.

The Album interactif de paléographie médiévale, hosted by the University of Lyons, offers a useful selection of practical introductory exercises that will help you get your eye in on a variety of Latin, French, and Italian scripts from the 9th to the 15th centuries. (Thanks to Rosemary Moore for the heads up about this site!)

If your focus is on a slightly later period, the French Renaissance Paleography site, recently launched by the University of Toronto and the Newberry Library in Chicago, is a really great resource. It contains more than a hundred French manuscripts dated 1300-1700, with tools for teaching and transcription and some associated historical essays.

And if you really want to practice on the go, you can download the Medieval Handwriting App [iOS/Android] that lets you get your eye in on 26 different manuscripts. It includes primer pages and the opportunity to check your work.


Every so often, even the most intrepid paleographer can be stumped by a word—whether because of damage to the manuscript, because a string of minims can be difficult to parse, or because of an unusual word abbreviation. There are some digital tools that can help you out in these situations, like Enigma. If you type the letters you can read and add wildcards for those you can’t, Enigma will list all the Latin words that it could be. This tool has saved me from tearing my hair out on a number of occasions.

Portrait of the scribe Eadwine. English, ca. 1147. Cambridge R.17.1, f.283v.
Portrait of the scribe Eadwine. English, ca. 1147.
Cambridge R.17.1, f.283v.

Latin was the language of scholarship, law, administration, and diplomacy in the Middle Ages, but it was not quite the same language that had been spoken during the Roman Empire. Christian terms were borrowed from Greek and Hebrew, while regional vernaculars also shaped the vocabulary and syntax of medieval Latin. This means that medieval Latin manuscripts often contain words that you’re not going to find in a standard Latin dictionary.

That’s where the work of a French nobleman, Charles du Fresne, sieur du Cange (1610-88), still comes in useful for modern scholars. Du Cange wrote a multi-volume work, the Glossarium mediae et infimae Latinitatis (“Glossary of medieval and late Latin”, though it’s almost always referred to simply as “Du Cange”), which has gone through various editions over the centuries. One of its later iterations is now available online courtesy of the Sorbonne in an easily searchable digital edition. (I’ve also previously put together a handlist of dictionaries for those working with medieval Latin and French (langues d’oïl) texts which might be useful.)

Capelli’s dictionary of Latin abbreviations was published in 1912, but it remains an indispensable reference for medievalists. My ever more battered print version accompanies me on all my archival research, but if it’s too bulky for you or you want to look things up on the fly, you can refer to a copy which has been scanned and put online. There is a browser-based app (which is also mobile compatible) called Abbreviationes which draws on a much larger range of manuscripts than does Capelli, and is updated occasionally; however, it’s pretty expensive and has some clunky restrictions on how a subscription can be used.

If you’d like to work on transcriptions of medieval manuscripts that are not part of the University of Iowa collections, it’s worth checking out the T-PEN project at the University of St Louis. It hosts more than 4000 manuscripts that can be transcribed or annotated, and also allows you to upload your own manuscript images to create transcriptions through its online interface. You can work alone or in small groups, but for copyright reasons—and unlike DIY History—the projects can’t be public or crowd-sourced on a large scale.

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The Digitized Medieval Manuscripts app homepage.
The Digitized Medieval Manuscripts app homepage.

If you’ve been bitten by the palaeography bug (it happens) and want to know more about how to read manuscripts and how to use them as historical artefacts in and of themselves, there are lots of resources out there for you to explore. The Sorbonne’s Theleme website hosts a bibliography with over 1500 entries (French language), all on palaeography from Late Antiquity to the modern era.

There are an ever-increasing number of websites which host manuscripts digitised by libraries and archives across the world. The easiest way to get a sense of the breadth and variety of digitised medieval manuscripts is to visit the Digitized Medieval Manuscripts site. It hosts links to more than 400 institutions and tens of thousands of manuscripts. DMMaps is a crowd-sourced project and is updated regularly.

If you know of any tools or resources that you think are useful for the budding digital palaeographer, feel free to drop a link in the comments below!


  1. Johannes Waldschütz

    A very useful list. Thank you for this blogpost. Let me add two websites in German

    Ad Fontes is an online learning platform at the University of Zurich.

    In addition to an online course they also developed a smartphone app, that includes 4 functions

    – it resolves medieval da (based on Grotefend: Taschenbuch der Zeitrechnung)
    – it resolves abbreviations (based on Capelli: Lexicon Abbreviaturum)
    – it resolves names of latin places (bases don Graesse: Orbis latinus)
    – and it provides prototypes of each letter in different medieval scripts.

    Last fall they did a crowdsourcing hackathon that resulted in a digitized version of the Capelli (in my opinion more usefull then the digitized version you linked to)

    The second somewhat more oldfashioned ressource is the digitized version of “Franz Steffens: Lateinische Paläographie” at the University of Fribourg (in french and german)


    They offer examples of medieval manuscripts and different medieval script. The examples are also transcribed, so that you can compare your own transcriptions with the correct versions.

  2. Matthew Holford

    Thank you for this very useful post. Great to learn about the Album interactif.
    Here are a couple more additions:
    (1) University of Cambridge [literary manuscripts mostly 16-17th cent., but some 15th cent.]
    (2) National Archives (London) [medieval documents]
    (3) Stanford’s online course on medieval manuscripts includes transcription exercises

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