Manuscripts and Special Collections

Introduction to Reading and Understanding Medieval Documents

Detail from WLC/LM/11, f 1r

In the Middle Ages only the educated elite could read and write. Nevertheless, the English government and legal system relied on written evidence. Many of the surviving medieval documents record the acquisition of land, the resolution of disputes, the payment of money, and the rights and responsibilities of individual people: things which it was important for people to know and prove.

Other documents record the cultural life of the Middle Ages. Bibles, prayer books, service books and works of pious instruction remind us of the central role of the Catholic church. However, many literary works are secular, and intended for entertainment. Until the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century everything was hand-written.

This unit explores a number of features of medieval documents, including their layout, the languages in which they were written, authentication devices to persuade readers of the document’s genuine nature, and marks of ownership across the centuries. There is a brief introduction to handwriting styles and abbreviations used in the Middle Ages, and finally a set of interactive palaeography exercises to test your skill in reading medieval English documents.

Throughout the unit, illustrative images are taken from the collections held by Manuscripts and Special Collections at the University of Nottingham. Many come from the Wollaton Library Collection.

Some parts of the unit have been adapted from an online Book History module written by Dr Nicola Royan and Dr Joanna Martin of the School of English Studies at The University of Nottingham.

The unit was published in February 2011.

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Manuscripts and Special Collections

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