Reviewed April 2021
Julia Reynolds, MLIS Candidate, Simmons University
Assistant Director for Donor Communications, Tufts University
French Renaissance Paleography is a free online tool for deciphering French manuscripts written between 1300 and 1700, a period whose scripts are particularly difficult to read. The database includes more than one hundred manuscripts at the introductory, intermediate, and advanced levels. Graduate students, professors, and independent scholars will find it useful in mastering different late medieval and French Renaissance scripts, abbreviations, and period-specific vocabulary. Museum and library curators, archivists, and catalogers who work with French manuscripts will also find it a valuable resource.
Four partner institutions developed this digital initiative: the Newberry Library’s Center for Renaissance Studies, Iter: Gateway to the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the University of Toronto Libraries Information Technology Services, and the Center for Digital Humanities at Saint Louis University. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation provided initial funding. Prior to 2016, the Newberry only offered training in French paleography to groups of fifteen scholars at a time and required participants to travel to Chicago for nearly a month of onsite learning. Now, a much larger audience can be accommodated online, albeit with less individualized attention.
The site comprises four parts: a web hub with an image viewer, a transcription tool, a set of reference resources, and a community tools area. A customized version of the T-PEN transcription tool allows users to practice transcribing manuscript documents with the creation of a free account. Transcription keys are provided for sections of some manuscripts, with others available for individual practice and collaborative work. The group work function lets students share practice transcriptions and instructors assign manuscripts to individual students or groups of students.
While the site aims to be accessible to advanced undergraduates, much of the material requires reading knowledge of French and sustained, concentrated effort to understand. Most students will need expert guidance before they can achieve fluency. Still, all with an interest in French civilization will benefit from the reference resources, which expand on the social, cultural, and institutional settings in which writing was used. Students in the visual arts will also enjoy the calligraphy, illustrations, and marginalia—especially, perhaps, the calligraphy books.
French Renaissance Paleography appears to be a work in progress. At the time of publication, the site’s section on historical maps contains only one sentence (“here are some resources about the history of cartography in France”) followed by two citations and external hyperlinks to the University of Chicago Press and University of Wisconsin-Madison's History of Cartography project. Similarly, while the background essays and partial transcriptions include entries for all or nearly all of the published manuscripts, some of the entries only contain a title and date along with an invitation to post your own work via a designated Google group. When you follow through, this message appears: “embedding groups is no longer supported and will be turned off soon.”
Beyond ensuring that scholars retain the fluency in old scripts necessary for archival research, French Renaissance Paleography offers a superb opportunity for collaboration among academic institutions, libraries, and museums. Already, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Houghton Library at Harvard University, the J. Paul Getty Museum and others have contributed digital images of manuscripts in their collections as part of this project. With further investment and outreach, French Renaissance Paleography could become an extraordinary cross-disciplinary resource in a highly accessible format.