First They Kiss and Then They Bite: How Letters in Love Make History

By Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel)

If you don’t know when something precisely happened, can you still call it a historical event? What is the historian to do with information from a source that is not dated? What if it mentions how an official was murdered, that he fell by the knife, and that his killer was a student? Details abound, but dateless the event is largely meaningless. Historical information floating in time remains ordinary: a murder is a murder, nothing more.

For the disciplines that study the Middle Ages such undated sources are common. From circa 1500, at the close of the period, we have the luxury of knowing precisely when a source was produced. At that point in time, after all, such information was placed on the first – title – page of the book. How unlucky we medievalists are. We depend on thousands of handwritten sources that were made before the invention of the title page and which are, consequently, by and large undated. How are we to write the history of an age with so much “floating” information? This complex query has a seemingly simple answer: by learning how to date.

In order to so, paleographers like myself study the shape of letters. There is something magical about handwritten letters that makes them irresistible to me. A medieval scribe who wrote information on parchment did so, like we do today, in his own, individual manner. When we receive a letter from a loved one we intuitively recognize his or her handwriting merely by glancing at it. The process takes a split-second and may occur from as much as a meter away. It shows that each individual embeds, subconsciously, personal traits into the letters that flow out of his or her pen. Beholders somehow pick up on these “signals” frozen in the shape of letters. A sentence written on parchment becomes a skyline that might be recognized from afar – because we have visited the city before. An experienced paleographer looking at medieval manuscripts thus recognizes a scribal hand: “Zap!” it goes in his head.

Another “Zap!” moment arrives when the paleographer activates the part of his brain that intuitively tells him how old a specimen of writing is. Curiously, in this case it is not the individual traits that are important, but the generic ones. While handwriting with only unique characteristics is hard to date, one that conforms to contemporary trends is easier to place in time. Instinct and experience are crucial in this process: the experienced eye of the paleographer recognizes the script of an individual as exponent of a style of writing that is particular for a certain period – or geographical location, but that is another story. With such verdicts as “early thirteenth century” or “middle of the fourteenth century” information is secured in time.

One of the most significant challenges for the discipline of paleography is to transform these intuitive verdicts into assessments that are objective and substantiated with quantifiable data. The physical shape of the letter is still the point of departure but it is given a different role to play. In my own work two processes are important in this respect: to describe the shape of a letter (or even an individual stroke) as precisely as possible; and subsequently measuring how the shape evolved over time. In my experience, the latter is best done with manuscripts that, by exception, do contain a date. They are usually written down by the scribe on the last page of the manuscript. From these dated books one can deduce how a given letter was constructed physically at a certain point in time – or even in a particular geographical location, if the scribe also tells us where he wrote the book. If the corpus of dated books is large enough and spans enough years, we may witness how a letter developed over time. When the script of an undated manuscript is subsequently placed alongside this reconstructed time line of script development, a likely date of production may emerge.

Take the following example from the twelfth century, the period studied in our “Turning Over a New Leaf” project. Over the course of this century we notice how letter pairs with contrasting round strokes – like be or od– undergo a remarkable development. Blown up on a 29-inch screen it becomes clear that at the outset of the century the pairs are always separated: white space is clearly visible in between the individual parts that make up the pair. Halfway the century, however, we witness how the couples hesitatingly (but barely) start to touch one another, a process that is called “kissing”. Near the end of the century, finally, the pairs slightly overlap, a process known as “fusion” or “biting”. From distant strangers to couples in love: the stages of development turn out to be perfectly datable.

No kissing occurs in “hoc”

Letter pair “do” is kissing

Now the historian can do his thing. With an accurately dated source, information is given its rightful place in history, turning ordinary murder into historical event and adding to our understanding of the medieval period. Letter shapes thus calibrate our sense of dating. They anchor events in time so they can make history.

Want to know more about script development in the twelfth century?
Erik Kwakkel, “Kissing, Biting and the Treatment of Feet: The Transitional Script of the Long Twelfth Century,” in Erik Kwakkel, Rosamond McKitterick and Rodney Thomson, Turning Over a New Leaf: Change and Development in the Medieval Book (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2012), 79-126.
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