Minding My P[er]’s & Q[uae]’s

I have spent a concerning number of hours over the past month or two puzzling over pages that look like this:

Geoffrey of Trani, Summa super Titulos Decretalium (1491 ed.), fol. 47.

And this:

Joannes Teutonicus, Decretum Gratiani … cum glossis (1601 ed.), cols. 1306-10

And this …

Hostiensis, Summa Aurea (1597 ed.), fol. 173

My Latin being not yet what it might be, approaching a new genre of text like these canon law glosses (about which more in a later post) is difficult enough, but the task is made a good deal more difficult by the fact that the early modern printers of medieval texts retained manuscript-style abbreviations and symbols, so that many of the letters necessary to make sense of the text never actually make it on to the page. Sometimes a symbol is substituted for a common word; other times, only a slight swash above the word indicates that there are letters missing. This is the point when you start measuring transcription/translation progress in inches …

For example, the first sentence of this excerpt from the 15th-century incunabulum in the first picture:


transcribes as: Quia superius tractatum est de institutionibus et concessionibus quae ab episcopis sine consensu capitulorum fieri non debent, ideo subiicitur hic rubrica de his quae fiunt a prelato sine consensu capituliwhere the underlined bits are all the letters that have to be supplied by the reader.

There are of course some guidelines to follow, many of which are laid out in a more or less logical fashion in the venerable handbook of medieval Latin paleography known by the name of its author, Cappelli, in which one discovers that a ‘p’ with a line above it makes ‘pre’ (as in the second-to-last word of the third line above), ‘p’ with a line through its descender makes ‘per’, and ‘p’ with a small loop to its left side makes ‘pro’. A variety of further squiggles similarly turn a ‘q’ into quod, quam, quae, etc. Horizontal lines over vowels often indicate the suspension of a ‘n’ or a ‘m’ (cōsēsu = consensu), but the abbreviation could also be more involved (snīam = sententiam). The most common symbols at the end of words replace common Latin word endings. For example, a wavy curl at the end of a verb indicates a ‘-ur’ ending to create a passive verb (as in the fourth word of the third line).

Even with all the symbols and standard abbreviations under one’s belt, however, a good deal is still left up to context and being able to recognize likely words even once they’ve been disemboweled. Practice really does make perfect (perhaps, eventually?), as the same abbreviations continue to crop up throughout the text.

In working with printed texts, of course, I’m still paddling in the shallowest end of the palaeography pool. Actual manuscripts introduce the idiosyncrasies of handwriting, inconsistent letter forms, and concessions made for the sake of speed rather than readability, as you can see from looking at that exact same sentence in an earlier thirteenth-century manuscript:

Lund MS Medeltidshandskrift 11, fol. 120r

N.B. If anyone’s interested in learning more about Latin palaeography, the National Archives has a fun online tutorial


3 thoughts on “Minding My P[er]’s & Q[uae]’s”

  1. You will be perhaps surprised that medieval people already felt baffled by this kind of abbreviations! Using the Incunbaula Short Title Catalogue (CERL and British Library), http://data.cerl.org/istc/_search, you can find various editions of a treatise called “Modus legendi abbreviaturas in iure”, for example this one published in 1494, see http://diglib.hab.de/wdb.php?dir=inkunabeln/81-3-jur-2f-4 9Herzog August Bibuiothek, Wolfenbüttel). However, in theologgical and philosophuical works you can find unfamiliar abbreviations, too.

    Kind regards,

    Otto Vervaart, Utrecht, Netherlands


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