Early Modern Handwriting

May 1, 2013

TImagehe CEMS workshop on ‘Describing, Analysing and Identifying Early Modern Handwriting: Methods and Issues’ (25 April) may have had an arcane title but it drew over 70 attendees. This showed how far the study of early modern manuscripts has burgeoned since the pioneering work of Peter Beal and others. Many issues remain to be resolved, however. Methods of describing, distinguishing and identifying hands differ from scholar to scholar and, although the work of individual early modernists is often based on very substantial unarticulated ‘tacit knowledge’ about the dating and differentiation of script styles, little detailed work on the topic has been published. The workshop aimed to advance the process.

A panel on ‘Problems’, chaired by Colin Burrow, offered some case studies from a team who are working on a new editions of the letters of Queen Elizabeth.  Jonathan Gibson showed how he had been able to identify the handwriting manual on which Elizabeth drew for her formal signature: a case here of the complex mediations between print and script. Carlo Bajetta and Guillaume Coatalen discussed the difficulties of identifying the scribal hands behind the queen’s Italian and French correspondence: Bajetta suggested that for such identification, the overall mise en page, and small details that were not in the form of letters, might be more useful than the scrutiny of particular letters. A second panel, ‘ Solutions’, chaired by Daniel Wakelin, outlined some divergent strategies. Tom Davis explained how he had put his own palaeographical training to practical use in advising on  many cases of forgery, including the celebrated case of the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad. In court, what is being asked for is evidence that receives immediate assent without needing specialized interpretation, and this is done by assembling large bodies of evidence and presenting parallels visually. His website offers templates for comparing letter images which can be downloaded. Simon Horobin discussed the Late Medieval English Scribes project which uses a similar technique for the identification of scribal handwriting. Steven W. May showed how the close study of legal documents could help in the understanding of literary authorship. Julia Craig-McFeely, drawing on her work for the Digital Archive of Medieval Music, argued that the existing techniques suffered from the difficulty of considering individual letters independently of their processing the large quantity of information needed for secure identification of hands. She  suggested that new technologies of digital imaging, developed by Ichiro Fujinaga and others, could both enhance the analysis of the larger mise en page and permit a more nuanced comparison of individual letters in their larger contexts. In a lively round table session, Gabriel Heaton, Peter Beal, William Poole, Heather Wolfe and Henry Woudhuysen expressed a range of views about the practicalities of different approaches to attribution, and proposed different perspectives from the practicalities of identifying a previously unknown manuscript for sale to the need to link narratives of English palaeographical history with the narratives established in the study of diplomatic. Finally, Giles Bergel chaired a session in which several project ideas were canvassed, and in one case executed (an online, shared bibliography for Early Modern Handwriting studies is now in progress at http://www.zotero.org/groups/early-modern_handwriting, and contributions are welcome). It was also suggested that a wiki-based dictionary of terms might be initiated. Giles Bergel proposed a large-scale project to compare engraved pedagogical exempla with their scribal copies, building on research in which Jonathan Gibson and several other participants were engaged. Similarly, Tim Underhill suggested that a new version of Ambrose Heal’s dictionary of English Writing-Masters would be useful.

All participants felt there was a need for many more online images of manuscripts, either through a single portal such as Cambridge’s Scriptorium or as separate resources. More online collections of images of manuscripts would greatly assist in the application of digital image-processing technologies, the potential of which was demonstrated through the example of Bodleian Ballads Online’s woodcut-recognition engine. Image-recognition, as previously discussed by Julia Craig-McFeely, could help in e.g. classifying hands; identifying scribes; recognising distinctive words, glyphs, strokes or other scribal features. Regardless of the outcomes, it was argued that research questions needed to be raised early in the project planning phase, even for simple archives of images. Overall, there were many ideas canvassed and a sense that much could be done with both established and new techniques, particularly in combination.

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