Site: Postgraduate online research training
Course: Palaeography: An Overview
Book: Transcription
Printed by: Guest user
Date: Friday, 5 March 2021, 7:15 AM


To provide students with some guidelins for transcription

1. Transcription: General Considerations

Transcription plays a key role in this tutorial. Our aim is to provide you with the skills that will allow you to access and study the content of medieval manuscripts and documents, whatever your area of interest. In order to do this, it is essential that you are able first to recognise the different letterforms, and therefore the script style, so that successful dating can be achieved. Similarly, the effective recognition of individual letterforms can only be practised by undertaking frequent transcription exercises.

Second, it must be highlighted that our transcription exercises are not aimed at producing editions of the documents and manuscripts offered here; rather, our main purpose is to help you acquire transcription skills. Therefore, and in order to make things as uncomplicated as possible, you will need to produce a transcription which reflects the original text as much as practically possible. Thus, for example, if a particular word is misspelt in the original document, that spelling must be kept in the transcription. It would be for subsequent editors of those texts to decide, and explain when and if those spellings need to be corrected or updated.

2. Transcription @ InScribe

We have developed a new tool for manuscript transcription practice (and assessment) in collaboration with the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London. Even though this has allowed us to overcome most obstacles, there are still some hurdles to be faced when transcribing. In order to avoid some of these we have provided, in the following pages, guidelines for transcription when using our tool. These relate to abbreviations, punctuation, numerals and special letterforms, and they apply to all the documents and manuscripts used in this module, regardless of their language, date and nature.

2.1 Abbreviations

Even though the documents and manuscripts provided for transcription in this module are in Latin and English (Old or Middle English, depending on their date), the system of abbreviations that scribes used is remarkably stable across both languages and throughout the medieval period (although variation did, of course, exist).

The frequency and number of abbreviations found is often inversely proportional to the degree of formality of a given manuscript or document. Thus, for example, in the late medieval period, legal documents tend to be more heavily abbreviated than, for example, liturgical manuscripts. However, this kind of generalisation may be challenged by the so-called nomina sacra ('sacred names'), which are usually abbreviated even in the most formal liturgical manuscripts. Thus, it is not uncommon to find words such as dominus (dňs), sanctus (sčs) and deus (dš) (or any of their variations) abbreviated even in the most de-luxe manuscripts.

Here are some of the most common abbreviation marks found in medieval texts:

- an overline for m or n 

- b followed by a 3-like sign for b[us]

- o followed by a 2-shaped r with a cross-stroke across its lower member for -o[rum]

- p with a cross-stroke across its descender for p[er], p[ar], p[or]

- p with an overline for p[re], p[rae

- p with an extra curl on the left of its descender for p[ro]

And here are some examples of nomina sacra:

- ds with an overline on top of the s for d[eu]s (the same with m or o after d for d[eu]m and d[e]o)

- dns with an overline on top of the n for d[omi]n[u]s

- ihs with a cross-stroke across the ascender of h for ie[su]s

- christus (and all its derivations) follow the Greek form xps.

- scs with an overline on top of the c for s[an]c[tu]s

Note that the final letter of each of these clusters will vary according to case.


Finally, with regard to the ampersand (&) and the Tironian nota (7), and despite different arguments as to the most convenient way to expand them, we have decided to render the former as et and the latter as and when found in Old English texts and et in Latin.



Important Note: When expanding abbreviations in the Transcription Tool please remember to use SQUARE BRACKETS as in the following example.

Su[m]ptu[m] d[omi]ne q[uo]s

For a full list of all the marks of abbreviation, suspensions and contractions used in medieval texts see A. Cappelli's Dizionario di Abbreviature Latine ed Italiane (Milano, 1912). You can find its online version here (opens a new window).

2.2 Punctuation

The introduction of punctuation in medieval texts to help the reader to read the text aloud. Because of this, the distribution of punctuation signs responded to rhetorical units and pauses in a way that may seem alien to the present-day reader. Moreover, the shapes used vary to some extent from those with which we are familiar today. Overall, punctuation in medieval manuscripts comprises three main signs:

- Punctus simplex - Consisting of a single dot in the fashion of a modern full stop (though often found above the baseline), its use is the most heterogeneous of them all. It may be found after incomplete sentences as well as at the end of full sentences and preceding a capital letter.

- Punctus elevatus - Consisting of a point and a reversed comma on top, it is often, like the colon today, found where something else could still be added.

- Punctus versus - Consisting of a comma below a dot, it is usually seen at the end of full, complete sentences.

For the transcription exercises you will find across this module, punctuation plays a secondary role and therefore you will not be required to include it in your transcription. Still, its presence should be duly noted as it often informs us about the way in which a particular text was to be read.

2.3 Numerals

For most of the medieval period Roman numerals were used. Arabic forms would not arrive in western Europe until the tenth century, and by then, they would only be found in Spanish manuscripts. They would not spread through western scriptoria until the twelfth century. This implies that, since these numerals are written in the same script as the main text and they contain numerous minims (simple upright strokes such as those in m, n or u), their shape heavily reflects the script in which they are copied. However, scribes tend to advertise the presence of numerals within the main text by adding dots at each end. These, which should not be interpreted as a mark of punctuation, were intended to allow the reader to locate those numerals more easily and effectively. Even so, when transcribing, these dots should be kept and reproduced alongside the Roman numerals.

2.4 Special letterforms

Since most of the manuscripts and documents transcribed in this module are in Latin, the number of special characters found in them is rather limited. One should not, however, confuse special characters with different shapes of letter forms commonly in use. Thus, for example, we find several shapes of s across different periods (high, low, round, etc.). Indeed, this letterform is still extant today in one of its medieval forms, the round one.

A different situation applies to vernacular texts. Both Old and Middle English texts use a number of letterforms which are no longer found in present-day English. Most of these are provided for you underneath each transcription box within the transcription tool so that you can copy and paste them in to your own transcription. They include:

- ash (æ)

- eth (ð)

- thorn (þ)

- yogh (ȝ).

Two further cases might be considered here. Both the Anglo-Saxon form of g (ƽ) and wynn (ƿ) are very rarely used in modern editions of Old English texts. The former, even though it has been argued that it might represent a different sound to that of g, is always transcribed with this form in Old English. As for the latter, the introduction and success of w into the English language by the Normans eventually meant its total obliteration. For these reasons we have decided to transcribe them using the modern forms of g and w respectively. 


NB.- Both ampersand (&) and the Tironian nota (7) are considered as abbreviation marks for et and and respectively and therefore treated under the Abbreviations section.

3. The Transcription Tool

Our transcription tool has been designed to allow you to practise transcribing medieval manuscripts. The interface comprises two main parts: the manuscript image and the transcription boxes.



The MS digital image

The tool allows you to zoom in and out so that you are able to explore the manuscript in detail. You are also able to drag it within the image display window.

Those sections of the text which form part of the transcription exercise will be highlighted in orange. When you are ready to transcribe them, click on the first one (which will turn blue).


The transcription boxes

On the right-hand side of the screen you will find a number of boxes where you can enter the transcription of each of the extracts marked up on the page. Once you have clicked on your selected extract, the corresponding box will be highlighted and you will be able to enter your transcription. When you finish, click on the following box to continue.

After you have entered your transcription in the correct box and clicked on the following one, the background of the previous box will turn green (if correct) or red (if there are mistakes).

When you have entered all of the transcription simply click elsewhere on the page to find out whether the last extract is correct or not.


Tips and Special Characters

Underneath the transcription boxes you will sometimes find tips or notes giving you extra information about the extracts you are required to transcribe. These will only be visible when you select the relevant extract.

Finally, you are also provided with a limited number of special characters that you may have to use in your transcriptions. You simply need to copy and paste them into the relevant box.

3.1 Key to transcription tool

Old English Latin Example
Ampersand (&)  - et
Tironian nota (7) and et
Abbreviations [  ] [  ] q[uo]s
Numerals (with dots) .NUMERAL. .NUMERAL. .iii.

Special Characters

copy & paste copy & paste Æ æ Ð ð Þ þ Ȝ ȝ
Anglo-Saxon g (ƽ) g g
Wynn (ƿ) w -
u u u

For a full list of all the marks of abbreviation, suspensions and contractions used in medieval texts see A. Cappelli's Dizionario di Abbreviature Latine ed Italiane (Milano, 1912). You can find its online version here (opens a new window).