Medieval Writing
Paleography Exercises
Sentences of Peter Lombard From a private collection. Photographs © Dianne Tillotson.

This orphaned leaf comes from a copy of the Sentences of Peter Lombard, or, in the Latin in which it is written, Sententiarum Quatuor Libri of Petrus Lombardus. This was an extremely important theological and philosophical work of the 12th century, much quoted and commented on by later medieval writers. The work is in four books. The contents of this leaf are from Book II, Distinction XXV, Chapters 3 to 8, and it concerns the subject of free will. As you might imagine, this is pretty hard going. I am not going to attempt to transcribe the whole page (I would go nuts!), but will just stick to the first two sections of the first column of the recto, representing Chapters 3 to 5.

There are some very interesting aspects of the whole layout and design of this page, which give us something to think about medieval academic books. This was not like a psalter or breviary, texts learned off by endless repetition, for which the books were mere prompts, but was a dense and complex book for study. Some aspects of the production are explained by this type of usage, others give pause for wonderment.

The general page layout is the first consideration. The total page size is around 21 x 33 cm, so it is quite big, but then there is a lot of text to fit in the book. The main body of the text is crammed into a box of around 12 x 20 cm, leaving very wide margins. These were used for glosses which the reader of the book could add for themselves. It was the nature of so much academic medieval literature to be cumulative, with the process of commentary being part of the reading, and sometimes part of the development of the text. Librarians take note. Medieval readers were allowed to write on their books.

Certain production values of this leaf are quite elegant, with fine fancy penwork initials, some elaborate calligraphic flourishes on the top and bottom lines and a rather arty way of laying out the rubric headings. But the script is awful to read. It is squashed and untidy, and employs a huge amount of abbreviation, not all of it of the standard forms that we have got used to. But this was a text for close study. When you start discussing matters such as whether angels can have free will, every nuance of every word counts. I think it might be considered that formal Gothic textura was past its use by date for this kind of reading, and the advent of compact and legible cursive scripts for lengthy works may have been a great relief.

Apart from the general legibility of the script, there are some mistakes, corrected in some cases by the glossator, some jumbled words and some omitted segments. It really makes you wonder just how the process of reading was undertaken with a text like this. I suspect that even with works of this nature, an unimaginable amount of the text, to our modern minds, may have been committed to memory. We just don't use that muscle any more. Certain aspects of the text suggest mind games that could be used to commit a text to memory, such as repitition of phrases and certain word plays like poterit non peccare et non poterit peccare. Yes, I know that is also to tease out subtleties of meaning, but it also give the text a rhythm that might help commit it to memory. Remember they had no Kindles or iPads for a quick reference in those days.

The leaf is supposed to be from the 14th century, but on what authority I know not. Some letter forms in the main text may suggest an earlier date in the 13th century, but who knows. The glossing script is a cursiva anglicana which could be (probably) 14th or (maybe) 15th century, so it is reasonable to presume that an owner of the book was English. That's not to say where he got it from, or when.

A Latin transcript for the text was found in Magistri Petri Lombardi, Parisiensis Episcopi 1971 Sententiae in IV Libris Distinctae Grottaferrata (Romae): Collegi S. Bonaventurae Ad Claras Aquas, Vol. II. Parallel Latin and English texts of Books I and II can be found on the web in The Franciscan Archive. Without these I would have been lost and you would have been out of luck.

| overview | initials | text | glosses | alphabet | abbreviations | exercises | transcript | translation |

Click on each of the above to walk your way through the text. The transcript will appear in a separate window so that you can use it for reference at any time. These exercises are designed to guide you through the text, not test you, so you can cheat as much as you like.
Script sample for this example
Index of Exercises
Index of Scripts

If you are looking at this page without frames, there is more information about medieval writing to be found by going to the home page (framed) or the site map (no frames).
This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last modified 23/3/2010.