Obviously from the Greek roots for "old writing," paleography is the study of the writing of manuscripts. A paleographic study of a manuscript can provide much useful information, hinting, e.g., at the place the manuscript was copied, the circumstances of its writing, and (perhaps most important) its approximate date.

The term "paleography" was coined by Dom Bernard de Montfaucon, who in 1708 published the Paleographia graeca -- not actually the first book on dating manuscripts, but the first one to develop the tools of the discipline; soon after, Scipione Maffei discovered many old documents in Verona, and on this basis developed Latin paleography and added greatly to the knowledge of the field.

Palaeography uses many tools to make its judgements (far too many to be covered here!); of these, shapes of the letters is perhaps the most important (for examples of the evolution of uncial letterforms, see the article on and examples of Uncial Script). However, a paleographer will also examine the way the manuscript is prepared -- writing material and its characteristics, writing instrument, other materials used. Spelling and dialect can give important hints. The manner in which the manuscript is bound is also important, although the possibility of rebinding must always be allowed; a binding can set a latest possible date, but not an earliest. A binding can also give a hint as to the origin of the manuscript, or at least where it was when bound: Oak was a common wood for binding in England and France, while Italian books often use beech or pine and were rather lighter. Pasteboard (sheets of paper or parchment glued together) seems to have been more common in southern Europe than northern. It was common in both north and south to cover the binding boards in leather, but to decorate the leather with patterns (usually made by stamping them with a hot metal stamp) was much more usual in southern Europe, and was done mostly after 1400 C.E.

For an example of how these factors are used, consider the following: Although we have both papyrus and parchment manuscripts from early dates, a manuscript on paper must be fairly late. And a manuscript on papyrus is almost certainly pre-tenth century. (For this subject, see also the article on writing materials.)

Over the years, writing implements also evolved; a document written with a reed is likely to be earlier than one written with a quill or metal pen. Ink can sometimes be used for dating, and it can also help us localize the area where a manuscript was written -- an ink based on oak galls is more likely to be used in an area where oaks are available, you probably won't see gum arabic on a manuscript written in the far north, etc. (See further the section on paints and pigments.) Even the way the lines are ruled can be significant. Some scriptoria preferred to use a sharp stylus (which, I suspect, is harder on the material but makes for better line), others blunt. Again, some scriptoria apparently preferred to prick both inner and outer margins; others folded the leaves and pricked all the way through. I have read that this is a strong indicator of origin in Latin manuscripts; I do not know if it is useful for Greek. But these are the sorts of things paleographers can seek to learn from.

Word forms as well as letter forms must be examined, as well as the shape of the page and the arrangement of the columns, plus any marginalia or artwork or even unrelated scribbles. Elephant (To give an example from Latin manuscripts: There are several books from France in the early period of the Holy Roman Empire which contain pictures of elephants. Many of the pictures are inaccurate -- the one in Paris, National Library MS. Latin 1 (folio 328v) looks like a sausage with a lion's legs and no real head; just a round spot that has two tusks stuck in it. The trunk comes out of the forehead! Another manuscript from the period has an accurate drawing of an elephant's head. It is known that an elephant was kept on display at Charlemagne's court for a time. Presumably the scribe who drew the accurate elephant saw it -- and hence had to be alive at the time. We can't say much about the other scribe, but obviously he was not at Charlemagne's court while the elephant was there.

Care must be taken with the results of paleography, however. It is not an exact science, and all its judgments are approximate (so, e.g., the enthusiasm about the early date of 𝔓52 should be treated with a certain amount of caution; it is simply not possible to date a manuscript to the fifteen or so year span some have proposed for 𝔓52). Book hands are more datable than casual hands (an advantage, obviously, to Biblical scholars) -- but most scribes will stick with a particular style as long as they live, meaning that even if we can accurately date a style to 125 C.E. (the typical date for 𝔓52), that scribe could still have been working forty or fifty years later. And the general trend in writing styles was toward more compact scripts, meaning that a scribe who knew he was short of parchment might seem more recent than a contemporary scribe with a big budget for writing material! A. E. Housman wrote, wisely, that "...even when palaeography is kept in her proper place, as handmaid, and not allowed to give herself the airs of mistress, she is apt to be overworked." It is perfectly possible for old handwriting styles to be preserved long after new ones have evolved. Sometimes this is the result of isolation -- but sometimes it is the result of peculiar needs. (An example of this is medieval English hands. Early Middle English used three letters not in the Roman alphabet -- eth (ð), thorn (þ), and yogh (ȝ). This led to preservation of an older script for English documents even as new ones evolved for Latin (we see instances, even from the same scribe, of Old English documents written in an insular hand even as Latin works are copied in a Caroline minuscule). We see something rather analogous in the case of Codex Bezae, where the Greek and Latin hands have been conformed to each other (this is the chief reason why Bezae is so difficult to date).

It should also be noted that paleography does not concern itself solely with manuscript dating, although this seems to get all the "press" in most English-language volumes on TC. Paleographers concern themselves also with the place of the writing, the scribe, etc. (E. Maunde Thompson, for instance, was perhaps the most famous of all students of classical paleography -- and he was called upon to examine the manuscript of the play "Sir Thomas More" to see if a particular scene was indeed in Shakespeare's own hand. The date of the play wasn't in question, but they still called a paleographer!) These other considerations can be very important: Consider the implications, e.g., if Tischendorf had been right and the same scribe had worked on B and ℵ, or if it could be proved that one of those manuscripts had been written in an unexpected place (e.g. Rome).

As an example of this, most writing centers eventually settled on using quires of four sheets, especially when using parchment, and arranged the folios so that flesh side faced flesh side and hair side faced hair. Not so with pre-Norman Conquest British volumes; they were not consistent about quire size, but five was the most common, and quires were always arranged with hair side on the outside on all sheets in the quire (so facing pages did not match). Also, the pages were pricked and ruled after folding, and ink was usually quite black. This combination of traits is strongly indicative of British origin. Welsh manuscripts are also marked by the rarity of blue ink -- there was no good blue available in Wales, so in the Middle Ages when other nations were using alternating reds and blues for decorated initials, the Welsh used green or blue-green instead of blue, or contented themselves with just red.

One of the key tasks of paleographers is to establish reference points -- known dates and places of origin for some manuscripts, so that we can compare undated manuscripts against these. Some manuscripts, of course, are dated, and others can be implicitly dated by their contents (e.g. if a manuscript reads something like, "In this the fifth year of my principate, I the Imperator Tiberius Cæsar declare," we can assume, unless it is a forgery or a copy, that it was written right around 19 C.E.). But sometimes other means are used. For instance, we know that the Fayyûm region of Egypt gradually dried up in the later Roman era, slowly forcing the residents to abandon it. We can date the abandonment of particular settlements based on their distance from the sources of irrigation. And so we can date manuscripts found in the settlements based on the date of the abandonment. Early dated manuscripts are relatively few. But tools of this sort make the discipline more secure.

Those interested in the provenance of manuscripts should keep in mind that most manuscripts, including the great Freer, Chester Beatty, and Bodmer finds, were discovered by local artifact hunters rather than archaeologists. The locals, sadly, often gave inaccurate reports about where they found the manuscripts, since they wanted to keep hunting there. So it is important to know not only where the manuscript is said to have been found but the reliability of the reporter.

As an example of how all this works, consider this page of a Vulgate manuscript of Esther (which I offer not because it's a good example but because I was the one who had to examine it. The person who offered it to me had been told that it was a thirteenth century copy from France, from the William Foyle collection, but if there is any documentation of that, I don't know of it; from all the solid evidence offered to me, it could have been stolen or faked.) The page shows parts of Esther 2-4.


(Note: This is much magnified; the original is about 160x100 millimeters.)

The most obvious thing about this page that this is a heavily decorated copy. Of Esther -- not a book of high importance to the church. Despite (or perhaps because of) its small size, this is a de luxe copy, implying that it was intended for someone of importance.

The hand is typical of that used in France, and sometimes England, starting in the twelfth century. The fact that the hand has decayed a little from the twelfth century forms argues for the thirteenth or perhaps early fourteenth century.

The fact that it uses Stephen Langton's chapter numbers, and even gives them prominence, argues strongly against a twelfth century date; a date after 1250 is strongly indicated.

Both sides of the leaf are stained. The staining is worse on the other side. Only a few holes are evident where the leaf was stitched; it appears to have been cut out along the stitches. The vellum is nonetheless very fine, and appears to have been prepared with great care -- more evidence that this was destined for a noteworthy owner.

The style of illumination belongs to a school closely associated with Paris. See, for instance, Berlin Ms. theol. lat. qu. 33, with images of the book itself at

It is disturbing to note the modern folio number in the lower corner, an indication that the entire volume was once in a properly curated library (presumably Foyle's, but we have no proof), which has now been so thoroughly dispersed that the book itself has been cut up.

My informal conclusion is that this copy is probably from Paris, c. 1300 -- in other words, that the description of the leaf is accurate. A true paleographer could probably make more of it, particularly if given more than the single leaf that I have seen.