Last October I left for my first trip to the archives in Toulouse. On my way there, I stopped in Paris to attend a three-day training in palaeography offered by the École Nationale des Chartes. The course, taught by Professor Marc Smith, aims to deepen the participants’ expertise in palaeography. Each day our group was given multiple difficult texts to transcribe, starting with sixteenth-century texts on the first day and ending with eighteenth-century texts on the last. We got the opportunity to work on notary acts, judicial documents, and letters, among others.
Arrest by the chambre de l’édit du parlement de Paris,
8 May 1621. Source: BnF, ms. fr. 28409, no. 48.
Each morning, Marc Smith began his class by introducing us to the history of handwriting, showing us how the Latin alphabet evolved throughout time and space. We learnt about the development of different hands, with changes caused by reforms or cultural exchanges. In 1632, for instance, the Parliament of Paris initiated a handwriting reform as documents had become almost illegible due to the poor handwriting of some scribes.
One aspect of the course I particularly enjoyed was being shown the different models of writing that were taught and used throughout each century, notably the images demonstrating how to write (including the position of the body and the movement of the hand). It was also very interesting to get to know more about the community of maîtres-écrivains, or master scriveners. These masters were professionals united in a guild whose craft was the art of writing. One of their most notable works are the calligraphic collections they published, in which they demonstrated the many different ways a letter could be drawn. Marc Smith showed us several of these collections from different masters which he collected over the years, and we were lucky enough to browse through them.
I am glad I was able to join this three-day training. It offered me valuable insight into the history of writing as well as practical advice how to deal with the most difficult documents. I believe this training would be valuable for any palaeographer and early modern historian in the making. The École Nationale des Chartes also offers a training for beginners. As for me, this course was the perfect foundation for my own archival research.
– by Sherilyn Bouyer