Teaching Palaeography Before and After Coronavirus

Manuscripts Under Lockdown 3:

Dr Leonor Zozaya is a lecturer in the Historic Sciences Department at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. She is a member of the Centre of History of Society and Culture in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Coimbra. You can find more about her work at leonorzozaya.wordpress.com, paleografia.hypotheses.org, paleoteca.wordpress.com, and redaccion.hypotheses.org. Follow her on Twitter here.

I was going to name this post ‘Teaching palaeography during COVID’.[1] But on reflection I realised that I have mostly been using my pre-existing methods of teaching, with some obvious changes. So I have decided to explain my general teaching approach, along with the most significant changes that I have been forced to make due to the pandemic.

For the most part, I have continued teaching in the same way as before. However, there are three main changes I have made during the lockdown, due to the necessarily distanced nature of learning. The first is the change from being in a classroom to being in front of a computer at home. The second is the use of digitised facsimiles in place of paper copies. The third is the shift from traditional whiteboards to digital ones.

This is all based on my experience of teaching one course since the lockdown began, in the second half of the academic year 2019-20 (History Degree, Geography and History Faculty, University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, ULPGC). The material taught concerned what we call ‘palaeography for reading historical documents’, which for my purposes meant looking at Spanish facsimiles of the late medieval and early modern periods (in this case meaning the thirteenth to seventeenth century). The elective had only six students enrolled; a small number, but one typical for such courses in the second semester of the fourth and final year, when students are preparing their dissertations.

Teaching methods before COVID-19

I will now outline some of the different methods I regularly use in my teaching of palaeography. I normally begin by explaining the generally accepted rules of transcription (though they aren’t, of course, universal), so that students are able to transcribe a text into modern letter forms, not just understand it. I explain the various principles of transcription, which depend on the provenance of the document, the intended audience, the purposes of the scribe and their particular interpretation of the text – amongst other factors. Throughout the course of teaching I build on these ideas so that students develop deeper understanding through applied learning.

Periodically I provide photocopied facsimiles alongside a transcription, both published and unpublished, by main reference authors and others.[2] By giving students a variety of transcriptions,[3] they can get to know the different approaches to editing, from the most flexible, like the UNED manual,[4] which contains many exemplary alphabets – a vital tool for teaching palaeography – to the classical purity of Millares,[5] Floriano,[6] or Romero et al.[7] There are two classic texts which I recommend using extensively when teaching, since they have been digitised and are available online: the works of Arribas and García Villada,[8] although Villada does not include comprehensive alphabets and Arribas includes none at all.

In class we start by reading the text aloud, taking it in turns to read a line. Anyone can ask a question at any point. Often the issue one student raises is shared by many others in the class. For example, they might find it difficult to read or understand certain letters in the facsimile.

To help students understand better, I draw particularly difficult letters up on the whiteboard. I prefer to project an image of the manuscript on to the board, so I can then write over the letters in different colours, as shown in the following photo. Since lockdown, I have had to swap the physical whiteboard for a digital one, which I will explain in more detail below.

Projected MS Page
I project an image of the manuscript on to the board, so I can then write over the letters in different colours, as shown here.

Having read a facsimile in class, it is now time for the students to get to work outside of the classroom. They have to transcribe the text on their own, noting down any doubts they may have. Afterwards they have to correct their own transcriptions, using a red pen to show that they haven’t simply copied their final draft from the transcription I gave them. They also have to write out an alphabet for each facsimile which must contain the most common abbreviations and the norms of abbreviation at a minimum. You can see an example worksheet here:

Example Worksheet by Leonor Zozaya
Example Worksheet by Leonor Zozaya

To help guide the students, I give them model worksheets that I have completed myself, like this one from 1468 (in the cursive gothic script of the court. If you want further examples, I recommend those from the UNED manual.

The students must also be able to recognise the type of script they are reading and say broadly when it was used. For example, the gothic cursive script known as ‘albalaes’ was used from the 13th-14th centuries. To help them develop this skill, I teach them a mnemonic strategy of my own creation: students write out the type of script (e.g. ‘albalaes’) alongside the most characteristic form of each letter and some words of their own choice.

Exercise by Andy Padrón
Exercise by Andy Padrón

You can see a picture of this exercise here, as done by Andy Padrón in 2019/20 during the second 2019-20 Palaeography course (which unfortunately no longer exists). We did this exercise regularly, using reed pens made from bamboo, quills and ink that I prepared myself, something that the students really appreciated. Of course it’s impossible to do this during Covid, which has had a negative impact on the students’ ability to identify letters.

Every week, each student has to upload their self-corrected transcripts and alphabets to the virtual campus. This includes their identification of the script type and general period of usage, something that they sometimes overlook. An illustrative example is the work done by Melani Almeida-Vera, an enrollee on my course taught during Covid. I think she has done a wonderful job here, typical of the work I received from her and the other students (it was very hard to pick just one example!).[9]

By setting lots of exercises, I can rest assured that the students are working hard and learning throughout the course. With correctly completed exercises, students can achieve 60% of their final grade. The other 40% is made up by attendance (10%) and the mock and final exams (30%).

Changes to teaching since Covid

For public health reasons, Spain has been under a State of Emergency since the 16th March 2020. The initial period of two weeks was gradually extended up to the end of our semester in May. This meant that in-person classes were cancelled. As teachers we had to adapt to these new circumstances overnight.

During this period I have continued with all the techniques described above, whilst swapping physical whiteboards, photocopies and in-class teaching for digital means of delivery.

The biggest change was giving classes using video-conferencing software. Although I had previously used platforms such as WizIQ, and despite everyone telling me to use Zoom, I preferred to explore the platforms that my university had made available (an incredible overnight achievement!). One of these was e-tutor, but I had a couple of problems with it from the very start, and parked it in favour of BigBlueButton (BBB), which I highly recommend.

BBB is very easy to use, but its biggest advantage for palaeographers is its excellent digital whiteboard, where I could display facsimiles. You can also make use of different coloured digital pens, which I used to draw over the original letters, including to show similarities and differences between them. Looking at an image of the whiteboard screen will give you an idea of how I used it.[10]

LZ Image 10
Whiteboard screen capture

The only difficulty is that you have to take lots of screenshots of previous screens if you want the documents to be seen clearly. These are arduous to prepare and create lots of extra files, but it is – relatively speaking – a small inconvenience.

Once in front of the digital whiteboard, I could give some explanatory comments, and then we would go through the document line-by-line, with each student taking turns to read using the microphone. None of us used our video, in order to increase the likelihood of BBB functioning smoothly.

Problems arose when the software ran into difficulties, which happened for various reasons. For example, BBB sometimes crashed when lots of the university’s classes were being taught at the same time. We also had individual connectivity problems, due to slow computers or low bandwidth.

There were two common problems. The first was when someone couldn’t be heard (as though the connection had been lost). If this happened, the student would type out what they wanted to say on the chat. The second problem arose when people disconnected from the class because of network issues. Another student would soon notice that someone was missing. We resorted to WhatsApp when it was the missing student’s turn to read. We started a WhatsApp group in order to pre-empt these types of emergencies. When someone didn’t appear on-screen, we would assume that their connection was down and so we would check the group chat. Then, the absent student could send their reading aloud by audio message. I could play this through my computer, so everybody else could listen together, with minimal disruption to the class.

It undoubtedly helped that we were so willing to persevere in the face of adversity, and we found solutions to problems quickly. This was made much easier by the reduced class size and our group chat. All seven participants, myself included, put in our best efforts and were even more enthusiastic than usual. I must add to this that the students were as keen to learn as I was to teach, and I consider myself lucky to have had a group that was as hard-working as it was kind. Every class was about enjoying palaeography and, as they very kindly told me, the course made the lockdown much easier. This is such a tremendous compliment to receive as a teacher. I extend the same gratitude to them as they have to me.

Leonor Zozaya, University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria

Translated by Angela Boyle from a revised version of the Spanish original. Angela is studying Spanish and Italian at Lincoln College, Oxford. Follow her on Twitter here.


[1] I want to thank Henrike Lähnemann for inviting me to participate in Teaching the Digital Codex (8th July, 2020), which helped lead to my writing this post. I also extend my thanks to Mary Boyle for re-publishing this post here and, of course, to Angela Boyle for her great job with the translation.

[2] I always include bibliographical references, so that students are familiar with the main reference authors, and so that authors’ rights are preserved.

[3] Sometimes I give students two different transcripts of the same facsimile, which helps them to develop their own principles and critical knowledge of transcription.

[4] T. Marín, J. M. Ruiz-Asencio (dirs.): Paleografía y Diplomática, Madrid, 1987 (reedited).

[5] Although Millares has other important works, I only quote the following here: A. Millares, J. I. Mantecón: Álbum de Paleografía Hispanoamericana de los siglos XVI y XVII, Barcelona, 1997

[6] A. Floriano: Curso General de Paleografía y Paleografía y Diplomática Españolas, Oviedo, 1946.

[7] M. Romero-Tallafigo, L. Rodríguez-Liáñez, A. Sánchez-González: Arte de leer escrituras antiguas: paleografía de Lectura, Huelva, 1997.

[8] F. Arribas: Paleografía Documental Hispánica, 2 vols., Valladolid, 1965: Z. García-Villada, Paleografía española, 2 vols., Madrid, 1923.

[9] I am grateful to my students, past and present, for permission to include two examples of their work.

[10] Find the original facsimile in F. Arribas, nº 129

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