Paleography Primer and Quiz

Paleography is the study of the writing of historical documents and a basic understanding thereof is a core skill for scholars of all periods of the Irish language who wish to read primary source material. It involves being able to read the script, as well as scribal abbreviations, and it helps in identifying different hands and assigning an estimated date to a manuscript. With the existence of Irish Script on Screen, an extensive online repository of medieval Irish manuscripts hosted by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, scholars are now in a prime position to teach themselves the tenets of Irish paleography.  

The Léamh Paleography Primer serves to give the user a basic understanding of Irish paleography by covering some of the most commonly used features from Irish language manuscripts. Once you have completed this course, the best way to gain practice and experience is by selecting a diplomatic edition of a manuscript or a text that you like that has been digitised by Irish Script on Screen and attempting to transcribe it using the diplomatic edition for reference. For example, if you are interested in Early Irish literature, you could use Best and Bergin’s diplomatic edition of Lebor na hUidre (available here) and compare it with the digitised images of the manuscript on ISOS. If you prefer Early Modern Irish material, you could, for example, use the transcriptions/editions of Bardic poems from the Book of the O’Conor Don on the Bardic Poetry Database, e.g. A bhean chridhe chompánta, and compare them with the digitised images of the manuscript on ISOS. 

The primer is presented in the form of five different levels in ascending order of difficulty with the option to skip levels, as required by the user. Each level includes an instructional presentation and an accompanying quiz to test the user’s knowledge. In the quiz, users are provided with a manuscript example which must be transcribed correctly. Each lesson begins with a set of user instructions.  

The primer draws on examples from manuscripts from the eleventh century onwards. However, the quiz features only manuscript excerpts of Early Modern Irish texts: the poem Cía as sine cairt ar chrích Néill? (‘Whose is the oldest chartered right to the land of Níall?’) from the seventeenth-century Book of the O’Conor Don and the seventeenth-century RIA MS 23 D 14; and Marbhadh Chloinne hUisnigh (‘The Slaying of the Sons of Uisneach’) from Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn in the seventeenth-century paper manuscript UCD Franciscan MS A 14. Part of this tale has been digitised on Lé from Osborn Bergin’s Stories from Keating’s History of Ireland (hyperlink). Please note that this is not the same as the diplomatic edition used for the Paleography Quiz. For more information on the poem Cía as sine cairt ar chrích Néill, see here

Primer Content Under Development


Lé thanks the libraries of Clonalis House, the Royal Irish Academy, University College Dublin and the Irish Script on Screen project, hosted by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, for the use of manuscript images. Léamh would also like to thank the scholars and fellows of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies for their feedback at the project’s inception stage: Mícheál Hoyne, Chantal Kobel, Andrea Palandri and Nike Stam. Thanks also goes to a number of members of the Léamh team for their commitment to the Primer and Quiz: Emmet de Barra, Christina Cleary, Wes Hamrick, Brendan Kane and Deirdre Nic Chárthaigh. Finally, thanks to Greenhouse Studios, particularly Tom Lee and Mackenzie Fox, for creating the online platform without which the Primer and Quiz would not exist.  

Reading and resources 

Bischoff, Bernard, 1990: Latin Palaeography. Antiquities and the Middle Ages, translated by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín and David Ganz, Cambridge.  

Clemens, Raymond & Graham, Timothy, 2007: An Introduction to Manuscript Studies, Ithaca and London. 

Irish Script on Screen: 

Ó Macháin, Pádraig (ed.), The Book of the O’Conor Don: Essays on an Irish manuscript, Dublin. 

O’Neill, Timothy, 1984: The Irish Hand. Scribes and their manuscripts from the earliest times to the seventeenth century with and exemplar of Irish scripts, Portlaoise. 

Ó Raghallaigh, Eoghan, 2008: ‘Poems from the Nugent Manuscript’, unpublished PhD dissertation, Trinity College Dublin. (Available online: LINK) 

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