The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 13 (August 2010)  |   Issue Editor: Larry Swain

Medieval Writing, or Paleography Can be Fun

Dianne Tillotson

Independent Scholar

© 2010 by Dianne Tillotson. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2010 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

Brief History of the Project

§1.  Medieval Writing ( is a free, publicly accessible website which aims to provide interactive techniques for the practical teaching of medieval paleography, within a context of background material on medieval literacy, literature, legal process and the general culture of the written word. It is designed in such a way that introductory sections to a range of topics should be comprehensible to interested general readers at different levels, starting even in primary school, but progresses on to more advanced discussions and to exercises in the decoding of manuscripts which may be of limited interest to specialists in various medieval fields.

§2.  The project grew out of a number of experiments with using interactive multimedia for exploring topics in medieval history as taught by my husband, John Tillotson, at the Australian National University. He is now retired, but the project has a life of its own outside an institutional framework. Our first experiments in this mode of teaching were begun in the mid 1990s. The website first appeared in 2001, initially intended as contextual material for the interactive exercises, which were being developed with the intention of distributing them on CD-ROM. The story of the wavering path of the project, and the difficulty with developing a long term project in a climate of rapidly changing technology and technical immaturity among users has been told elsewhere (Tillotson 2002). The situation now is that all the material is on the website, which is freely available to all, independent, and permanently under construction as the project still has no end in sight. Apart from a steady addition of material for the main site, it also now has a companion blog, Dianne’s Medieval Writing ( which allows me to comment on some areas slightly peripheral to the precise subject matter of the original website, and to make connections between the medieval material and modern preoccupations.

Why Paleography?

§3.  Some other of our multimedia projects might seem to have had more potential for presentation in this mode. Highly visual subjects which involved art, architecture and cultural heritage seemed excellent candidates for presentation with lots of photographs, maps and audio presentations. Many medievalists around the world would agree, and there are numerous excellent websites on these kinds of topics available. The main characteristic that made paleography stand out as a candidate for a new approach is that students tend to find it desperately technical, difficult and boring, and yet for any serious research on original source material, it is absolutely essential. There are many excellent textbooks and volumes of handwriting facsimiles in existence, but they tend to be hard to find, and when they are found they are packed with difficult technical language, assumptions about the general knowledge of students on the most esoteric areas of medieval history, and a forbidding level of scholarship.

§4.  The other characteristic that made paleography an excellent candidate for interactive teaching techniques is that it involves the learning of testable skills. It is possible to design exercises that give immediate feedback to the user, whether it is in a passive learning mode that involves moving a mouse pointer across a photograph of a segment of text and watching a transcript unfurl, or active exercises that require the user to type in text or identify words in multiple choice questions. These exercises can be done even without ingesting and absorbing all the technical vocabulary of the subject.

§5.  Another aspect is that paleography textbooks tend to stand apart from other works in medieval history, even from some of the modern studies on manuscript, text, literacy and reader reception. It seemed that the subject could be made more palatable if it was contextualised. I also have a lurking interest in the subject of literacy in general, and it seemed like a good opportunity to explore this in a historic context.

The Benefits of Using the World Wide Web

§6.  Perhaps the most immediate benefit from using the web rather than writing a book or distributing digital material on a permanent medium such as a CD-ROM, is that the project can be available to users as it grows. As this is a project with a potentially very large scope, this makes it a viable, living thing. The latest upgrades and additions are available to all users as soon as they appear. It is also possible to make corrections whenever somebody points out an error; and when one is trying to provide material in a range of scripts written over many centuries and covering a multitude of topics, there is no doubt that errors are going to occur. German professors and Icelandic scribes have acted as proofreaders at times.

§7.  Perhaps surprisingly, it is also the cheapest means of getting the work out there, provided the content author is also the coder and technician. The reasons for this relate both to the technology of production and distribution, and to the attitudes of copyright holders to the use of material. Paradoxically, if I tried to make even the tiniest bit of money out of this project, it would become too expensive to run.

§8.  Another benefit, although one that has some problems in the maintenance, is that on the web it can be linked in with all the other material available from around the world. As libraries and archives are currently putting up masses of medieval manuscript material in digital facsimile, the potential here is enormous. My vision of an enormous meta-project that ties together the disparate threads of manuscript study on the web is looking a trifle rocky at the moment, but the potential is still there.

The Problems with Using the World Wide Web

§9.  The main problems with using the web relate to archival stability. As it stands right now, if I fail to pay my subscription to my website provider, my site will immediately disappear. This is a problem for any independent scholar, as universities are becoming reluctant to host anything which does not relate to their immediate teaching priorities. Trying to create a meta-project linking external resources is also hampered by the lack of stability in the web in general. Even a simple link list which is not updated for a couple of years becomes unusable.

§10.  A problem unique (perhaps) to paleography relates to formatting. Many paleography books are very large format in order to accommodate full sized pictures of pages of written text. Most people do not have huge, high definition monitors. There are also bandwidth issues, as users have a range of connection types and cannot necessarily download enormous graphic files. Text reading exercises necessarily involve sampling from large pages, and often require horizontal scrolling.

§11.  Some earlier problems involving incompatibilities between browsers, especially in the handling of interactive material, and the rather crude nature of interactive multimedia on the web of a few years ago, appear to have been resolved—for now.

The Advantages of Flying Solo

§12.  When attempting a new approach to a very traditional discipline, there is considerable satisfaction in not having to convince a senior academic, one's peers, an editor, a review committee and a grants board before being able to simply get on with the job and see if it works. I have also relished the opportunity to bypass some of the conventions of formal academic language, although the content of the site is well within the bounds of academic respectability, and have even had the temerity to point out that some aspects of paleography are actually funny; the delights of having no editor. The consequence is that one then has to field all criticisms personally. One also does not get paid. There was also a belief at one time that it was necessary to hire professional multimedia technicians in order to do anything in this area. However, learning a few interactive multimedia tricks is easy. I could never get a multimedia technician to learn Latin, nor could I explain to them the difference between fonts and medieval handwriting. Whatever the subject area, content is absolutely the most essential part of the exercise, and I have found it easier to learn the technical aspects myself than to argue constantly with technical experts who wished to prioritise style over substance.

The Difference between Web Design and Book Design

§13.  Any one book is targetted at a particular readership, which might be professional specialist, student, general educated reader or newcomer to a subject. It has an introduction, a series of chapters in linear order and a conclusion. An index may provide the means to search and sample, but it is fundamentally a targetted, linear text. A website can be designed, with considerable effort and ingenuity, to provide general overview material linked to more complex discussions for specialists. While it takes a great deal of planning, it can be made to cater for very different classes of users. The almost universal use of search engines like Google also means that it must be navigable and make sense to a user coming in at any random page. This is a challenge, but can result in one website having sets of readers with quite disparate interests and goals. Just to give some examples, people who have initiated email correspondences with me have included someone claiming to be the only practising medieval scribe in Iceland and another scribe who makes his own iron gall ink and was happy to discuss and be quoted on some of the technicalities. A primary school teacher said the kids wanted to know how scribes corrected mistakes. Then there was a professor of international law who was writing a treatise on digital signatures and was interested in the medieval process of validation of documents. An expert on teaching literacy to disadvantaged kids in US cities wanted to discuss the concept of the complexity of oral knowledge and culture within literate societies. The web makes it so much easier for readers to range across disciplinary boundaries.

§14.  Photographs and graphic imagery can be used in different ways, no longer confined to one page of the text, but able to be introduced multiple times in different contexts, providing a link between different conceptual areas. Graphics no longer merely illustrate the text, but are part of the whole conceptual framework.

§15.  Text formatting is different to that of the printed page (even when produced electronically) and new typographical conventions can be introduced. This can aid clarity in a subject like paleography, even if it is disapproved of by the purists. I use colour in my text for highlighting, and use colour when expanding abbreviations in transcripts, because I think that dns (dominus) is easier on the eyes and brain than d(omi)n(u)s, especially for beginners working it out letter by letter. A typographical problem with the web is that you cannot drop in special characters, such as yoghs or wens, so these have to be explained.

Interactions with Users

§16.When a web author makes themselves available to the users through an email link or a blog site, many interesting things happen. The erudite readers may make corrections or query interpretations, which an be very helpful and collegial. Contact can be made with people in a range of subject areas. I have been amazed at how many different communities of users are interested in the subjects of paleography, calligraphy, legal process, esoteric literature and literacy. Naive users may be irritating at times with their constant questions about tracing their ancestors, reading random documents in their possession or identifying old seals, but they do indicate a level of interest in subjects which many universities have deemed to be less than relevant in the modern world. Then there are manuscript dealers who want free transcriptions and valuations. Worst of all, there are machines that harvest your email address and then send you mountains of spam advertising penis enlargements, holidays in Majorca and huge legacies from unknown deceased relations. In general, the advantages in having a dialogue with users outweigh the nuisance effects. Since the blog has been up, people can comment anonymously without revealing their identity or email address. This may overcome some inhibitions, but blog comments have to be moderated because of those who abuse the process. Two steps forward, one step back.

The Joys and Tribulations of Busking

§17.  I have often compared going solo on the web, as opposed to publishing in approved, peer reviewed media, as being similar to the difference between busking and being invited to perform on a concert stage. At the latter, everyone claps politely because they have already paid and you have been officially approved by some organising body. At the former, they feel free to cheer loudly and dance in the streets, or alternatively throw things at you and request that you leave town. Not everybody enjoys or approves of the same things, so there is always some rotten fruit to dodge. But you meet more interesting people.

A Peek into the Crystal Ball

§18.  Making predictions about the future of electronic media and its uses in education is fraught with hazards. Changes have been occurring in waves, and another wave is currently breaking as the web is becoming more democratised and new modes of electronic publishing are hitting the streets. At the same time, some traditional media, and traditional institutions, are being very slow to change their practices. It seems to be an issue of power and control; over intellectual debate, over the written word and over heritage artifacts. Issues of copyright and moral rights are becoming at odds with technological capability. Large cultural institutions have a range of attitudes to the dissemination of educational material via the web, from massive output of freely or cheaply available material, through dripfeeding of selected material, to doing as little as possible. It is no longer technology which is the limiting factor, but attitudes to the escape of discussion of educational material from institutional confines.

Why Am I Doing This?

§19.  My medieval writing project could be seen as an educational experiment, as a retirement project or as a one person stand against the institutionalisation of everything. I know this for sure. If I had written a paleography textbook, it would have cost a fortune and would have been lucky to sell a few hundred copies, most of which would have sat unread in libraries for years. The Medieval Writing website is used by thousands of people and sampled by many who would never get a book on paleography down from the library shelf. It is an experiment in how a new medium can fundamentally change the message.

Works Cited

Tillotson, Dianne. 2002. Multimedia medievalia: the fate of traditional scholarship in a post-modern world. In Our Mmdieval heritage, eds. L. Rasmussen, V. Spear and D. Tillotson. Cardiff: Merton Priory Press. Reprinted on the web at  [Back]