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Arts & Culture Student

Renaissance Hands: Palaeography Skills Workshop


The first of its kind for the College, the GTA Enhancing Education Fund provided a unique opportunity for postgraduate researchers (PGR), who have experience as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities at King’s College London, to lead the design of a course or skill-specific engagement activity for students, in collaboration with module convenors. Seven projects have been funded, including Julian Neuhauser's Renaissance Hands: Palaeography Skills Workshop.


The Renaissance Hands: Palaeography Skills Workshop is a project that will introduce First through Third Year undergraduates in the English Department at King’s to the practice of palaeography, or the study of older systems of handwriting. This workshop specifically focuses on reading, transcribing, and interpreting handwritten documents (manuscripts) from the early modern period (c. 1500-1700). The project works in collaboration with three modules at King’s: Early Modern Literary Culture  (First Year, convenor: Dr. Sarah Lewis), Renaissance Wordplay  (Second Year, convenor: Dr. Hannah Crawforth), and Books that Matter  (Third Year, co-convenors: Dr. Daniel Smith and Prof. Sonia Massai).

The Fary Knight, or Oberon the Second, Folger Shakespeare Library MS V.a.128 ff.8v-9r

Image: The Fary Knight, or Oberon the Second, Folger Shakespeare Library MS V.a.128 ff.8v-9r

Competency in palaeography is an indispensable tool for students of English literature because having the skills to confidently approach manuscript texts drastically widens the corpus of material that they can study. Thousands of pieces of literature—from love poems, to plays, to satirical sonnets—were only ever produced and circulated in manuscript form. Many of these manuscripts did not encounter the same levels of censure, licencing, or approval that printed texts needed to go through to exist. Because of this relative freedom from restriction, early modern manuscript literature could be less white, less male, and more queer than what was typically printed in the 16th and 17th centuries. The aim of the Renaissance Hands: Palaeography Skills Workshop  project is to provide students with the basic skills that they will need to read such non-canonical pieces of literature on their own.

Poetical miscellany and commonplace book of the Smith family, Folger Shakespeare Library MS V.a.103 f.69v

Image 2: Poetical miscellany and commonplace book of the Smith family, Folger Shakespeare Library MS V.a.103 f.69v

The Renaissance Hands: Palaeography Skills Workshop project accomplishes this goal by means of ‘transcribathons’. These are events where students come together to transcribe documents en masse. By working together to puzzle through manuscripts students will build familiarity with different forms of early modern handwriting. There will be two transcribathons per semester, one towards the beginning of the module and one towards the end. Between these transcribathons, students will encounter manuscript material in their modules, meaning that they will be able to apply the skills they pick up from the transcribathons immediately.

This project has been designed as a persistent and progressive skills development workshop; over the coming years, students can continue participating in these transcribathons by signing up for the related modules. This means that after three years of this programme running, a student who took Early Modern Literary Culture in their first year, Renaissance Wordplay in their second, and Books that Matter in their third would have had three years of palaeographical training. In addition to the intrinsic value of developing the skill to read 400+year-old handwriting, students with this training could make particularly competitive applicants to early modern M.A. programmes, such as the English Department’s own Early Modern English Literature: Text & Transmission and Shakespeare Studies M.A.

Project status: Ongoing


  • Undergraduates
  • transcribathons
  • manuscripts