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Paleography and the “G-Word”

By Daniel Hubbard | December 5, 2010

Presumably everyone reading this has heard of the Renaissance—the great flowering of learning and investigation that followed the medieval period and went back to and improved upon Western Culture’s classical roots. Few know that this was at least the second try at a renaissance since the fall of Rome. The first try didn’t go quite as planned and therein lies the story of why that really old document that you are trying to read makes it look like aliens with a very nonhuman arrangement of fingers were doing the record keeping for a few centuries.

Charlemagne et al—One Giant Leap

Charlemagne’s grandfather was a man known as Charles Martel, which means “Charles the Hammer.” The name was apropos. As a military leader he lost the first battle of his career. He escaped from prison, tried to quickly raise an army and, understandably, lost. He earned his appellation, “the Hammer,” by never losing again, ever. Charles official title was “Mayor of the Palace” for the king of the Franks. In principle nothing more than a sort of chief  of staff, in fact the power behind the throne. His son put an end to a centuries-old dynasty and became king. His grandson Charlemagne, literally “Charles the Great” was the first western emperor since Rome fell 300 years before and the family’s rise was complete.

Carolingian Script. It might look slightly odd but even not understanding the language, it is easy enough to see where words begin and end and the identity of each letter isn't really in doubt.

That earlier renaissance occurred during the reign of Charlemagne. He ruled from Barcelona to Brittany, to the Baltic Sea and into the Balkans. To hold his realm together he needed reforms and intellectual recovery.  One of the many problems Charlemagne faced that few people were literate (in fact he was not) and often those few literate people could not read each other’s writing. It didn’t take a literate ruler to understand that the point of writing was to be read. Though the  Roman alphabet was used everywhere in the West, it did not look the same everywhere—not even close. Every region had a variant and it was not easy to read one version of the alphabet if you were used to another. Schools were founded to increase literacy. To ensure that the newly trained scribes could actually read what another scribe wrote, a very neat easy to read script was developed and made the standard for all writing.

On Second Thought…

All seemed to be going well but the names of some of the descendants who followed “Charles the Hammer” and “Charles the Great” hint at why we think of THE Renaissance as having occurred closer to 1500 than 800—Charles the Bald, Charles the Fat, Louis the Child, Louis the Stammerer, Charles the Simple. I could go on. If these were the most notable ways to refer to these men, clearly all was not well (but what a conversation starter those names would be on a family tree). If new rulers had not stepped in, the mind boggles at what names later generations of this family might have born. Louis the Ludicrous and Charles the Ninny seem only a generation or two down the road in that alternate reality.

A sample of writing hundreds of years younger than the Carolingian sample above. Hint-The language is English

Charlemagne’s Empire literally went to pieces and his renaissance fizzled. The easy to read script that he commissioned was gradually replaced. Yes, people could actually read it without effort but that did not guarantee its future. Perhaps it took up too much valuable paper or was a bit too slow to write. Apparently, if the demand for handwritten books and records (and there were no others) was to be met, there was only one choice, produce them in a way that could just barely be read—and, just like the good old days, do it in a way that varied from place to place to make things a bit more interesting. I also wonder if the reformed script made the written word seem too everyday. Perhaps it just wasn’t esoteric enough. Maybe those few who were literate wanted their shopping lists to look like mystically divine invocations. It was more impressive that way.

Those well-separated, open, rounded letters of Carolingian script (“Carol”=”Charles”) were altered beyond recognition. They were given easy to make but hard to read angles. They were squashed and squeezed to fit more on a page. They ran together and became abbreviated. A new herd of scripts was born. From the modern point of view bad penmanship had become institutionalized and modern typographers, those keen students of readability, got something to shake their faith in humanity. To scribes writing with quill pens; paper and parchment were being conserved and a good deal of the effort of written communication was shifted from the writer to the reader in the interest of writing faster.

Using the “G-Word”

from "Asterix et les Goths"

The g-word is “Gothic.” No one who wrote Gothic Script called it that. When, after a few hundred years, a new and more successful attempt at having a renaissance was made, a vital need appeared. That need was for a sufficiently insulting term with which to belittle what had happened since the last attempt. Using a newly developed script based on the Carolingian script of that earlier renaissance, Italian writers began to use “Gothic” to describe everything that they felt had diverged from Classical simplicity.

Today, when we hear the term “Gothic” we might think of spectacular cathedrals or dark and brooding novels or even people who dress mostly in black. Renaissance writers thought instead of vast marauding hordes of barbarians who set western civilization back by a millennium, give or take—and those scholars were not amused. Gothic served well as an insult until people forgot why they used the term. I personally would not want to insult Gothic architecture. Gothic script on the other hand is a tempting target.

“G” is also for Genealogy

You might think that in your genealogy the chances of running into a script declared outdated and barbarous over five hundred years ago would be minute. Unfortunately, it takes more than a measly little renaissance to get rid of something like Gothic script. The sample above is from English church records dating from 1562. A bit later and English records become much easier to read. In Swedish records it can be found for a few more centuries, from what I have seen finally fading out just after 1800. In German speaking areas, it was used into the 20th century.

The Serious Part

Of course, Gothic script can be read. I just finished with a set of Swedish documents in Gothic script. As Gothic developed, people did keep legibility in mind just enough to realize that if no one at all could read something there was little reason to write it down in the first place. Gothic script can be quite beautiful and it does add that air of mystery to a document. In a geeky way, I enjoy reading it. It is just another one of those genealogical challenges.

To read any unusual script, in this case one of the many versions of Gothic but you can generalize to something else, you need to make a few adjustments to your reading-

  • You need to relearn the letters of the alphabet and become accustomed to all the variations that seem to have little to do with each other and even less to do with the modern alphabet.
    • You need to realize that “h” and other unexpected letters will drop below the line.
    • A “p” might soar to great heights.
    • Often in Gothic script if it looks like an “n” it isn’t.
    • Just because the marks are on the line you’re struggling with doesn’t mean that they don’t belong to another line altogether.
    • Then there is my favorite Gothic rule of thumb. If it is large and bizarre, it is probably a “G.” That rule isn’t mine and I’m sure it was said in jest but it isn’t as far off the mark as you might hope.
  • One of the most important things to do when and if you run into Gothic script is to get a large  sample of the handwriting so that you can try to figure out the letters by recognizing obvious examples of key words. A word may not have anything to do with your ancestor but it might help you figure out the words that do.
  • Another  word to the wise is to work letter by letter when the going gets tough. People read by recognizing whole words but that just isn’t how a modern person with pattern recognition tuned to modern writing should try to read an unfamiliar script.
  • Scripts varied from place to place, from era to era and even from use to use (think about the difference between reading a note in a Christmas card and the instructions in a doctors prescription). Don’t count on scripts being consistent across time, space and use.
  • Outdated script often implies outdated spelling and vocabulary. The idea of correct spelling was much looser in earlier centuries but even in cases there was a pattern to the spelling, there is no guarantee that it roughly fits our rules. It may have its own logic.

One word of caution. When trying to decipher old handwriting, it can be easy to feel that you “get the idea” without making sense of all the words. The problem with that is that the word you can’t figure out can drastically alter or even negate the whole meaning of the text. A while back I was shown a great example of this. It was the “marriage record” of a couple. It was perfectly legible, the script was roughly modern but there was one little word squeezed in way off to the side. The word was “refused.” The couple was never able to marry. Had that been in Gothic script and not deciphered, the whole meaning would have been the opposite of what was meant.

Good luck with Gothic! (for other reasons things can be hard to read or wrong try A Brief History of Oops)

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Topics: Genealogy, Methods, Records | 2 Comments »

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2 Responses to “Paleography and the “G-Word””

  1. Greta Koehl Says:
    December 5th, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    The translation issue that you address at the end is true of all translations, not just those suffering from illegible writing. I’ve had had to correct so many poor translations where the translator “got the idea” of most of the words, but it wasn’t enough; either he missed a critical word or actually didn’t know what all the words strung together meant.

  2. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    December 5th, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    Good point Greta. Anytime that a text is difficult for any reason and a word here or there isn’t understood there can be problems that are much bigger than one might think. Thanks for the comment!