Pondering Paleography and Soliciting Transcriptions

By Dan Hinchen, Reader Services

Recently, I was in the stacks retrieving an item from the Charles Edward French autograph collection. The item I was looking for comes from the 17th century in Massachusetts, but when I opened the box that holds it, I was immediately stricken by the first folder, which had a date range written on it of 1337-1545.

While I was aware that the MHS holds some medieval manuscript materials, they are primarily small unidentified fragments, or bound religious texts like breviaries and books of hours. Typically, these manuscripts are done in either Latin or medieval French. Here was something completely different.

The item in question (Hold down Ctrl and press + to zoom in)

This vellum item is small, only about 3.5″x9.5″, and contains only about eight lines of text. The writing is neatly ordered and still very clear. I am certainly not any sort of expert when it comes to language, but I can often recognize, at least vaguely, some European languages from the Renaissance period to the modern day. This text, though, I had never seen. 

Written on the back of this little document, at a much later date, is “2d Edward III May 27, 1337″. So now I have a date and perhaps even an author. Still, this doesn’t translate the material for me so I am left with no context for the item or any understanding of the text itself. 

I did a quick search online to see about the history of the English language and found that the variety of English used during the period covering, roughly, 1150-1500 is considered Middle English.

Now I have an assumed author and date, potentially the language of the text, and still no idea what the document may be about. What to do?

I shared my finding with the researcher whose document I was originally seeking and she clued me in to a couple of places that I might go for help, places where paleography (the study of ancient and historical handwriting) is common practice. Perhaps, even, to get a translation of this item. 

If you are hoping for closure in this blog post, I am afraid that I have to let you down. I started to put feelers out to see what help I can get, and that is where the situation stands at present. 

Are you familiar with Middle English writing? Can you identify anything about the document in the image above? If so, please leave a comment below and help us fill in some gaps!