Palaeography’s passing?

By Valerie H Wallace, on 2 August 2010

‘Dry, dusty and shortly to be dead’? This was the gloomy pronouncement, made by The Guardian in February, on palaeography and its future, after King’s College London decided to axe its chair of palaeography – the only one of its kind in the UK – thus effectively culling the subject as a discipline in its own right. KCL’s decision was met with condemnation in the academic community and a facebook campaign commenced to save the chair. After KCL received countless letters of complaint, as reported in the Times Higher Education last month, the College accepted the recommendation of its Palaeography Working Group to institute a new chair of palaeography and manuscript studies in 2012. This controversy was referenced by Dr Melissa Terras in her recent plenary lecture to the digital humanities  conference DH2010 held at KCL in July. Describing palaeography as a subject close to her heart, Terras mentioned the controversy as a warning to humanities scholars. To ensure the survival of their disciplines, Terras said, scholars must emphasise the importance and relevance of their projects and the transferable skills which they help to foster.

Transcribe Bentham is one such project which will educate and engage the community and promote the development of a range of skills including the study of palaeography.  Indeed, Transcribe Bentham puts a new spin on palaeography and manuscript studies, by digitising transcription and outsourcing the exercise to the community. Transcribe Bentham has developed an online transcription hub where users can log-in, participate in transcription and discuss their findings with others. Palaeography is a key skill in Bentham studies; only by deciphering Bentham’s handwriting have scholars discovered unpublished works containing Bentham’s ideas on, for example,  religion and sexual ethics, issues which remain topical.  Now anyone can log-in and transcribe Bentham’s thoughts. By using palaeography skills to decipher Bentham’s handwriting, you may become the first properly to discover and appreciate Bentham’s ideas on a number of exciting issues.  By harnessing the power of social media, Transcribe Bentham has made palaeography a collaborative, web-based process. Dry, dusty and dead? Hardly.