Posts Tagged ‘impossible handwriting’

On many of the older manuscripts I work with (13th, 14th century), there’s a certain kind of paper and certain kind of ink that one sees frequently, especially in legal or royal documents. The paper seems thinner, browner, and more brittle than usual, but what makes this particular combination unique is the ink. I don’t think the paper itself was initially so fragile, but after a couple of hundred years with this particular ink on it, it can’t help but start to disintegrate.

After a bit of googling, it seems likely that the kind of ink I’m seeing is called iron gall ink. This ink was particularly favored in legal documents since it couldn’t be erased or washed off. However, the iron erodes the paper slowly where the ink was. For an example, here’s a picture from the above linked website:

It is, of course, a shame that the manuscripts disintegrate in such a way. However, especially with particularly loopy handwriting (which one could probably not read to begin with), the designs the corroding ink leaves behind look really lovely, often like lace, or a snowflake.

Which brings me to another unique kind of manuscript art, which uses the destruction of manuscripts to create some nice art: the collage. Apparently it was somewhat popular during the Victorian era to buy up illuminated manuscripts, cut them up, and glue them back together to create a very colorful collage. A bit of a sacrilege, but beautiful!


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Despite having my Big Book o’ Latin Abbreviations (Cappelli’s Lexicon Abbreviaturarum) at hand, 8 times out of 10 I find myself hitting my head on my desk as I attempt to puzzle a real word out of an abbreviation. The 9th and 10th time I either find it in the Book o’ Abbreviations, or assume that the author either invented a “Latin” word or simply misspelled one (this happens a lot). Finishing up Egidio Foscarari’s Ordo Judicarius today once again led me to the terrible place of the other 8 times.

With the help of an early 19th century transcription of a portion of the introduction to my work (a lot of misspellings in the Latin, a lot of mixed up words, I have no idea which version they were using but it certainly wasn’t right). It is a lot easier to figure the abbreviations out when they are typed, and the issue of handwriting is taken away, so just imagine that every letter looks just about the same.

Abbreviations I need to figure out/have figured out from this paragraph:

  • spualib{ (spiritualibus?? the bracket on the end is supposed to be a weird squiggle that looks vaguely like a skinny 3)
  • Aenoic
  • itendo
  • ul’

Most of the worst ones I can’t even begin to transcribe, as they turn into arcane-looking symbols – terrifying mutations of what once were real letters. Here are a couple of examples, taken from the Lexicon:


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Cataloging documents, compared to codices, is not overly complicated in itself. The worst part is generally the secretarial hands are nearly completely illegible to anyone who is not the scribe. The handwriting is crisp and clear, the ink well-preserved on the vellum, and you can almost see some 14th century Italian scribe whipping through this notarial document. If you could only figure out his abbreviations and cursive enough to figure out what is actually going on (I think it might involve property. Possibly cattle).

Here’s an example of this kind of documentary script. This one is a 13th century charter of the abbey of Wilton, in a chancery hand:


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