BMCR 1991.02.03

Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages

, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. xi, 291 pages. ISBN 9780521367264.

As the blurb on the back of the jacket states, “this work [is] by the greatest living authority on medieval palaeography.” It began as an article in an encyclopedia, and was later expanded into a separate volume in Grundlagen der Germanistik. This version was first translated into French and now, thanks to the help of the Medieval Academy of Ireland, into English. It is not, however, “designed as a textbook,” as the blurb states, but rather a handbook, like its famous predecessor in English, E. Maunde Thompson’s Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography, a work which, however dated, has not yet been superseded. Professor Bischoff was involved in both translations at various stages, and has made additions and corrections to the original at various places. This has led on occasion to errors in adjusting footnotes and footnote calls and spellings (note the wonderful conflation “calligraphisization,” p. 72), but this is not a serious problem. The translation is clear and accurate.

The book is divided into three sections:

1) Codicology (writing materials and writing tools, the external characteristics of the written heritage, writing and copying, with an appendix on forgeries).

2) The History of Latin Script: Antiquity [capitalis (his term for what used to be called “Rustic capital”), Older Roman cursive, Later Roman cursive, uncial, older and later half-uncial, combinations, a brief appendix on tachygraphy]. Bischoff here avoids some of the confusing categories of E.A. Lowe, but his desire to ticket all varieties makes his terminology almost as daunting. This section is followed by Latin handwriting in the Middle Ages beginning with Irish and A-S scripts and ending with Humanistic script. Supplementary sections cover abbreviations, punctuation, musical notation (this section is inaccurate and misleading), numerals, and ciphers. These supplements are strongly oriented to manuscripts in German as well as to Latin manuscripts of German origin.

3) The Manuscript in Cultural History. This is the most surprising and welcome section of the book. Bischoff shows himself as more than a professional palaeographer in the old sense. He sees the medieval book as a artifact of the culture which it reveals. His discussion of book production in all its aspects (not least illumination) offers an important introduction to students of medieval history and literature. Bischoff again focuses mainly on manuscripts from the German areas of Europe, though he does discuss other production.

The text offers a useful survey of current knowledge, and the annotations, as one might expect, are thorough and up-to-date. One might only regret the lack of sufficient references in the earlier sections to Greek papyri, and in the general bibliography, the unfortunate decision to follow the German original in listing the items by date of publication (more or less accurately), while using the standard bibliographical form of the humanities (viz. author’s name first, and imprint date tucked away at the end). The decision to omit the early printed book is to be regretted as well (as the reviewer of the French version already noted, BEC 144 [1986]: 390). The book has been provided with a set of plates (including partial and inaccurate diplomatic transcriptions). The plates seem to be poor reproductions of the better plates of the French edition. Note that they are not the size of the originals (a practice that E.A. Lowe detested and I can hardly believe Professor Bischoff approved). Many of them are unreadable, and Cambridge would have done better to follow Bischoff’s decision in the original to refer readers to volumes containing the relevant proper reproductions.

Palaeography as a study has always been closely attached to librarianship and thus to the manuscripts housed in a particular country. It would be unfair to expect otherwise. The student of palaeography should, therefore, be aware that no one book can serve as the guide to Western manuscripts in roman letter. Indeed, the handbook for those interested in the study of medieval manuscripts in the United States (and in Britain) is still to be written.

I am sure that Professor Bischoff would agree with me that learning the art of palaeography involves, to begin with, what Friedrich Leo said of the study of classics, “Lesen, viel Lesen.” His book will, however, prove the guide and support that every student of ancient and medieval manuscripts can count on. Most scholars who work with medieval manuscripts have been grateful for the personal help of Professor Bischoff, who has given generously of his advice and knowledge. Now his expertise and patient direction is available to a wider audience.