MA History / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Reading the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Palaeography, Codicology, and Sources

Course unit fact file
Unit code SALC70040
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Full year
Available as a free choice unit? No


Primary source analysis is a touchstone for a historian’s work, but reading actual manuscripts can be a tricky task. This course explores developments in handwriting and the presentation of the written word from the early medieval to the early modern period. We examine and learn to read a range of different pre-modern scripts of different languages (English, Latin, German, Italian, and Spanish). Students will consider changes and developments in book and manuscript cultures, layout, and visual decoration. We will study a range of texts, including books and codices, administrative documents (charters, court rolls, etc.), correspondence, and manuals. As far as possible and subject to UK Government guidance, we will make maximum use of the impressive manuscript collections at the John Rylands Library. By introducing students to the most important handwritings from circa 800 till 1800, this course provides students with advanced skills in paleography; a valuable skill set for those using primary sources at MA level.


  • Demonstrate the hybridity of textual and visual sources surviving from the medieval and early modern periods, through hands-on contact with material at the John Rylands Library, subject to UK Government guidance;
  • Introduce students to the methodology of, and principal techniques used in source analysis of material from the medieval and early modern periods;
  • Develop advanced palaeographic skills in hands form the early medieval to the early modern periods;
  • Contextualise the variety of sources surviving from the pre-modern period, and illustrate how changes in script and decoration were influenced by changing intellectual and cultural demands;
  • Provide students with training in the comprehension and transcription of medieval script, and in the principles of manuscript and printed book description

Knowledge and understanding

  • Evaluate the relationship between production context and output with reference to written sources;
  • Demonstrate an awareness of the basic principles of palaeography, with reference to Latin and vernacular sources;
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the principles of codicological description;
  • Analyse the continuities and changes in the development of written sources in the medieval and early modern period

Intellectual skills

  • Gain experience in primary source analysis, including identification of appropriate material;
  • Develop transcription skills, relevant to Latin and vernacular sources;
  • Formulate a technical description of a manuscript and/or printed book;
  • Devise research questions and engage with existing scholarship

Practical skills

  • Handle medieval and early modern manuscripts and printed material according to standards of best practice;
  • Navigate library catalogues and book-handlists;
  • Devise an independent research project;
  • Apply the technical vocabulary applicable to manuscript and printed book studies


Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Develop oral presentation skills through participation in class discussions;
  • Manage time through preparation of assignments;
  • Use ICT resources for programme support;
  • Write fluent prose 

Employability skills

The ability to read historical scripts; the ability to argue and draw conclusions about historical material.

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Other 50%
Portfolio 50%

First portfolio of three transcriptions of 500 words each- Summative- 50%

Second portfolio of three transcriptions of 500 words each- Summative- 50%

Feedback methods

Students will receive formative feedback on palaeography samples assigned in the first weeks of the course. Written feedback on submitted assessed work shall be delivered within the time-frame recommended by SALC.


Recommended reading

- Beal, Peter, A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology, 1450 to 2000 (Oxford, 2008).

- Bischoff, Bernard, Latin Paleography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, trans. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín and David Ganz (Cambridge and New York, 1992)

- Brown, Michelle P. A guide to Western historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 (London, 1990)

- Brown, Michelle P., Understanding illuminated manuscripts: a guide to technical terms (London, 1994)

- Derolez, Albert, The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books from the Twelfth to the early Sixteenth Centuries (Cambridge, 2003)

- Gillespie, A., Wakelin, D., The Production of Books in England 1350-1500 (Cambridge, 2014)

- Parkes, Malcolm., English Cursive Book Hands 1250-1500 (Oxford, 1969)

- Parkes, Malcolm, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (Aldershot: 1992)

- Preston, Jean F. and Laetitia Yeandle, English Handwriting, 1400–1650: An Introductory Manual (Binghamton, 1992).

- Richardson, Brian, Manuscript Culture in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge, 2014).


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 16.5
Independent study hours
Independent study 133.5

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Ingrid Rembold Unit coordinator
Fred Schurink Unit coordinator

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