“…Paleography is a combination of knowledge, ideas, methods, and discipline, which enable one to read old writings correctly and without danger of error, to determine their age, their provenance, and their value, and to understand and explain whatever erroneous factors have crept into such writings.”
– The Catholic Historical Review Vol. 2, No. 3 (Oct., 1916), p.367[1]

“Paleography has for its object the knowledge and the decipherment of old writings. It differs from Diplomatic – the science of the genuineness of a document, in this: that the former teaches us how to transcribe and interpret correctly all written documents, while the latter helps us to distinguish what is genuine from what is false in the document.”
– The Catholic Historical Review Vol. 2, No. 3 (Oct., 1916), p.367[1]

“…academia has undergone a sea change in the past generation, and the lure of paleography has paled by contrast to the excitement of critical theory, gender studies, and other valuable new approaches to texts.”
– Josephine A. Koster (2009)[3, p.257]

“Paleography is likewise of assistance in Chronology, and is the science of deciphering, writings, especially those of ancient times, and of deciding upon their age, their authenticity, and present value. It is sometimes known as diplomatics.”
– James Cecil Macdonald (1897)[16, p.75]

Paleography Definitions

Samuel Johnson’s 1755 “A Dictionary of the English Language” does not include paleography/palaeography.

Webster’s Dictionary of 1828 defines paleography as:[13]
1 – The art of explaining ancient writings. More correctly,
2 – An ancient manner of writing; as Punic paleography.

Merriam Webster defined Paleography as:[4]
1 – “the study of ancient or antiquated writings and inscriptions the deciphering and interpretation of historical writing systems and manuscripts”
2a – “an ancient or antiquated manner of writing”
2b – “ancient or antiquated writings” defined it as:[14]
1 – ancient forms of writing, as in documents and inscriptions.
2 – the study of ancient writing, including determination of date, decipherment, etc.

Lexico defined it as:[15]
“The study of ancient writing systems and the deciphering and dating of historical manuscripts.”

“…paleography – the study of ancient documents and their provenance, of old types of handwriting and of obsolete forms of the language.”
– Joep Leerssen (2012)[12, p.28]

I have an issue with any definition for paleography that limits it to ancient handwriting. Paleography is applied not only to writings that are ancient, but mediaeval and modern too.

Paleography Etymology

1749 – Allegedly the earliest known use of the word. It was used with the meaning 2a listed above.[4]

1810-1820 – Allegedly the earliest known use, “paleo- + -graphy”[14]


Paleography has a number of subsidiary, or allied sciences:[1, p.368]
– Epigraphy
– Sigillography (sphragistics)
– Numismatics
– Iconography
– Papyrology
– “the science of miniatures
– Cryptography
– Tachygraphy
– “the science of hieroglyphics and cuneiform writings”
– Musical paleography

Paleography has a number of different types:
– Oriental paleography[1, p.368]
– Greek paleography[1, p.368]
– Latin paleography[1, p.368]
– Insular paleography[2, p.371]

Paleography involves studying the materials which have been written upon:[1, p.370]
– Bronze
– Clay
– Ivory
– Lead
– Linen
– Paper
– Papyrus
– Parchment
– Stone
– Slate
– Terra cotta
– Tree bark
– Walls of houses (graffiti)
– Wax
– Wood

“Paleography is not specially concerned with the ethics revealed, but tells us the genuine from the spurious in writings on sun-dried bricks, oyster shells, slabs, tiles, papyri, parchments, medals, bones, coins, metals, paper, ivory, bark, leather, lead, wood, or other substance used for recording the thoughts of mankind.”
– James Cecil Macdonald (1897)[16, p.76]

Paleography involves studying the different forms writings have taken:[1, p.370]
– Books
– Charters
– Codices
– Deeds
– Incunabula
– Letters
– Rolls
– Volumes

“A most complicated part of the science is the history of the different styles of handwriting.”
– The Catholic Historical Review Vol. 2, No. 3 (Oct., 1916), p.370[1]

The Development of Paleography

The scholarly development of paleography has its origins commonly traced to either Jean Mabillon or Bernard de Montfaucon. They established the study of ancient Latin and Greek texts. In the mid-20th century, this study was expanded to include all languages from all time periods.[5]


1681: Jean Mabillon (1632-1707) published his De Re Diplomatica in Paris.[1, p.369] This work has since won him the title of “The Father of Paleography” because it was the first serious attempt to make paleography into a scientific study.[8], [9] Another “father” of paleography is Bernard de Montfaucon.[6], [10], [11] E. A. Lowe designated Mabillon as the “Father of Latin Paleography”.[7]

1739: Paleography had spread to Scotland. Soon after that it spread to Greece, Italy, and Germany.[16, p.76]

1749: The word “paleography” is first used according to Webster’s dictionary.[4] A different source, reportedly the The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979), claims Bernard de Montfaucon was first to use the term, but he died in 1741.[5]

1803: Paleography had spread to England.[16, p.76]

1873: The Paleographical Society was established in London.[16, p.76]

1899: Ludwig Traube criticized paleography. He said, “historischer Sinn ist – so seltsam es auch klingt – in einer der historischen Hilfswissenschaften noch nicht zu Hause”.[2, p.361] According to Google translate, the English translation of that is, “historical sense is – as strange as it sounds – not yet at home in one of the historical auxiliary sciences”.

1821: The Ecole des Chartes was founded and then made the first significant step in the development of paleography. Since then, paleography has held a seat among the subjects taught in higher education.[1, p.369]

1854: Sickel established Institut pour le progres de l’histoire autrichienne in Vienna, basing it on the Ecole des Chartes.[1, p.369]

1907: Traube published his Nomina Sacra. Brown claims this to have been the greatest advance of paleographical technique since Mabillon’s founding of the discipline.[2, p.363]

1949: The University of London established a Chair of Paleography.[2, p.361]

1960: Francis Wormald was chosen as the first occupant of the University of London’s Chair of Paleography.[2, p.361]

“…Francis Wormald has demonstrated not only his own signal distinction of mind, and character, but the validity and vitality of the noble ideal of paleography conceived by Traube, the master whom he respects so deeply and understands so well.”
– T. J. Brown (1963)[2, p.361]

“…(Traube) gave (paleography) sound methods of inquiry. Tame as it may seem now, his determination to base his conclusions on all the material, not merely on what was available locally, was something new.”
– T. J. Brown (1963)[2, p.362]

Ctruth Paleography Articles

List of Paleographers Born Before 1900 –

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[1] – “Part I: The Auxiliary Sciences. III. Paleography.” The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 2, no. 3, 1916, pp. 367–372. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Sept. 2020.

[2] – BROWN, T. J. “LATIN PALAEOGRAPHY SINCE TRAUBE.” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, vol. 3, no. 5, 1963, pp. 361–381. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Sept. 2020.

[3] – Koster, Josephine A. “Most Excellent and Curious Hands: The Future of Paleography and Related Arts in Early Modern Studies.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 40, no. 1, 2009, pp. 255–258. JSTOR, Accessed 29 Sept. 2020.

[4] – Accessed 29 Sept. 2020.

[5] – Accessed 29 Sept. 2020.

[6] – Accessed 29 Sept. 2020.

[7] – Accessed 29 Sept. 2020.

[8] – Accessed 29 Sept. 2020.

[9] – Accessed 29 Sept. 2020.

[10] – Accessed 29 Sept. 2020.

[11] – Accessed 29 Sept. 2020.

[12] – Leerssen, Joep. “The Rise of Philology: The Comparative Method, the Historicist Turn and the Surreptitious Influence of Giambattista Vico.” The Making of the Humanities: Volume II: From Early Modern to Modern Disciplines, edited by Rens Bod et al., Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2012, pp. 23–36. JSTOR, Accessed 5 Oct. 2020.

[13] – Accessed 8 Oct. 2020.

[14] – Accessed 8 Oct. 2020.

[15] – Accessed 8 Oct. 2020.

[16] – James Cecil Macdonald. “Chronologies and Calendars” (London, 1897).

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