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Paleography is the study of historic writing systems and handwriting. The process dates documents and traces the evolution of various alphabets.

Paleography is only interested in the process of writing, the formation of the letters, not the content of the documents themselves. For example, someone working in this field would read a document by William Shakespeare in order to study the way he wrote his letters, not to study the content of his plays or poems. People working in this field are often called upon to decipher writing, date documents, and read what can’t be read by others. This could be due to the writer’s personal style or a change in the alphabetic style more broadly. 

Interestingly, scholars have described how as the implements of writing change, so too do the letters they produce. For example, when stones and chisels are used, the letters in an alphabet are far more simplistic. This comes from the difficulty of using the tools. It’s hard to acquire the precision that came later with the use of papyrus and reed pens and then quills and vellum, etc. 

Additionally, the size and position of letters change. They are joined in different ways, changing the overall shape. Such is noted in the study of Latin.  

Paleography pronunciation: pah-lee-oh-grah-fee

Paleography definition and examples

Paleography Definition

Paleography is the study of written historical documents with interest in how they were physically written, not what the content means. It is often desired as an auxiliary science of history. It helps to date papers and works of literature but is not entirely accurate at all times. It cannot be used to pinpoint dates but it can help scientists learn a great deal about how writing changed over time. 

For example, scholars can look at similar documents over a span of 300 years and see how writers understood the shape of different letters and types of formatting. It is a skill that many historians use as they interpret the stylistic changes over time. It is also useful when it comes to the use of abbreviations. These are often hard to decipher and knowledge of paleography comes in handy. Scholars working in this field also have an understanding of writing materials and how these have changed over time.

Although paleography is a way of dating documents, it is usually used as a last resort. This means that scientists will use many other methods first, like testing the age of the paper and ink. Usually, when a paleographer is called into work, they can date a document to within 50 years. 

Elements of Paleography 

Paleography is concerned with the following: 

  • Letterforms
  • Ligatures
  • Abbreviations 
  • Alphabet changes 
  • Punctuation 
  • Writing materials 

Paleography is not concerned with the following:

  • The content of a literary work 
  • The author’s use of imagery or allusion 
  • The author’s use of any other literary device 
  • The literary importance of a work

Examples of Paleography 

Aramaic Langauge 

The Aramaic language was one of the most important trade languages of Ancient times. It was used throughout the Ancient Middle East between 1000 and 600 BC. It was extremely popular and was used by people along the Mediterranean coast up to India. Throughout the use of paleography, scholars can understand how the alphabet originated and what other languages influenced it. It’s believed to be an ancestor of contemporary Arabic and Hebrew while originated from Phoenecian to an extent. 

According to Beyer’s The Aramaic Language, writers did not change Aramaic script that much from Phoenician. Instead, some letters were simplified, with lines thickened and rounded. These are key elements that paleographers look for. 

Why is Paleography Important? 

Paleography is an important science in that it helps scholars understand when documents were written, as well as other influences on their source, meaning, and broader context. The study of historic writing systems, which includes handwriting analysis, is useful when it comes to understanding who the author was and where they came from. It is also interesting in and of itself. 

Scholars study similarities between alphabetic styles throughout the history of a language as well as comparing one example of someone’s handwriting to another. This is useful for authentication. 

How to Read Old Handwriting? 

When first attempting to read old versions of English or any other language one speaks, it can be overwhelming. Letters may appear out of order, and there may be variations of letters that one doesn’t recognize. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for you to read the text, though. Often, it’s more important to read the words as a whole than examine every letter. The sounds are often the same. 

Some tips for reading old handwriting include: 

  • Leave out old letters you don’t recognize.
  • Consider how the letters should sound together. 
  • Understand what the document is first before trying to read it. 
  • Pick out phrases you do understand and use those to make the others clearer. 
  • Transcribe the original into contemporary English, French, German, etc. 


What is the process of paleography?

The process of paleography is the deciphering and understanding of old handwriting. This includes dating the documents and understanding how the letterforms changed over time.

What is the difference between epigraphy and paleography?

Epigraphy is the study of inscriptions. These scholars attempt to understand graphemes. This includes clarifying their meaning and their authors. Paleography is interested in written documents. These are longer and more complex. 

Who founded the disciplines of paleography?

It depends on the country and language. When it comes to Latin and the languages stemming from it, the disciplines of paleography are attributed to J. Mabillon. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Abridgment: a condensed or shortened version of a book. It contains the most important details and removes any digressions.
  • Anatomy: the division of a literary work or idea into parts. This is done so that a reader might better analyze the individual pieces.
  • Anthology: a collection of literary works that were chosen by a single compiler, a group of people, or an institution of some kind.
  • Context: the setting in which a story, poem, novel, play, or other literary work is situated.
  • Explication: a literary technique that’s used to create a close analysis. Usually, it’s related to the analysis of a portion of a text.
  • Intertextuality: a feature of a text that references another text. It reflects upon the latter and uses it as a reference for the new written work.

Other Resources 

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