Teaching Palaeography – A public engagement approach

Our latest guest post comes from Sarah Laseke, who is a doctoral researcher at Leiden University working on scribal collaboration in fifteenth century manuscripts. Here, she writes about her free 8-week ‘Palaeography for Beginners’ course.

The pleasure of looking at medieval manuscripts has not gone unnoticed – over the past few years, there has been an increased circulation of medieval manuscript illustrations on social media which has boosted the non-specialist’s interest in medieval books.  However, working with medieval manuscripts requires a specialist set of skills: the modern-day user must be able to understand how the medieval book was produced and how to decipher the handwriting.

To bridge the gap between an interest in medieval manuscripts and the acquisition of the skills needed to interpret them, I have been offering a free “Palaeography for Beginners” 8-weeks course for the past three years. The course is kindly hosted by the Iris Project, an initiative which offers free courses for the general public. In this blog post I will share my experiences of teaching palaeography as a public engagement project.

First of all, before I pitched the idea to the Iris Project’s coordinator, I wanted to find out whether similar courses existed. I found a number of online resources and the London Palaeography Summer School but I could not find a palaeography course that was free of charge in the Oxfordshire area. I was able to identify a gap in the market.

When preparing my course material and delivering my classes, I had to assume that none of the course participants had any prior knowledge of medieval manuscripts. For example, I explained the terminology my students had to be familiar with during my first lesson and I taught them how medieval manuscripts were produced. It was also important that I gave my students enough time to digest any new information.

Each class we would focus on a different script, ranging from the eighth to the fifteenth century. At the beginning of the class I’d ask my students to take a look at a previously unknown script and to work in groups to familiarise themselves with it. I’d then ask them to identify any distinctive letter shapes. This was followed by me introducing the script to the students. During the second half of the class I’d ask my students to work in groups to compare the transcriptions they’d prepared at home and to transcribe a word each.

Giving my students homework (handing out photocopies of manuscripts plates) was essential because palaeography is a skill you need to hone constantly.  However, I had to keep in mind that all of my students were volunteers so not asking for too much preparation was important. This was also important when selecting my course material. I tried to hit the right balance between easy and intermediate transcriptions – I did not want to discourage my students but I also didn’t want to bore them.

I found the experience of being involved with public engagement through teaching palaeography very rewarding. It enabled me to communicate my research field to an audience I wouldn’t normally deal with in my day-to-day life as a doctoral researcher. Personally, I found it very helpful to talk about medieval manuscripts and their production in a different context and with a different audience. I especially enjoyed it when my students asked really engaging and refreshing questions that made me consider something about my work that I hadn’t thought about before.

Sarah Laseke, University of Leiden (MS Collaboration HubSarah’s Twitter)

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