DS: Introductory Medieval Spanish Paleography (11th-13th Centuries)


Enrolling in late September 2017

Course Designers and Professors

Dr. Roger L. Martínez-Dávila,
Associate Professor of History, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs


This course provides an introduction to medieval Spanish paleography, or the study and practice of reading earlier forms of handwriting in Spain during the 11th through 13th centuries. We can then appreciate that the term — paleography — is both (1) the academic investigation of older forms of handwriting as well as (2) the actual handwriting itself. For our purposes, we will use the term “paleography” to describe the process of interpreting and recognizing letters and numbers in our primary sources (the manuscripts).

The specific scripts we will investigate include:

  • Visigoda (Visigothic). This script was used from the 7th through 11th centuries in Spain and was derived from Roman and Visigothic political influence. Late Visigothic script was influenced by Carolingian handwriting during the 11th century.
  • Carlovingia (Carolingian) and Francesa (French). The script was introduced from France and into Spain via political and religious relationships during the 11th through 13th centuries. This handwriting displaced Visigothic script.

As a historian of medieval Europe, my approach to paleography is one focused on pragmatic use of techniques to read text. While I appreciate the beauty and details of the calligraphy, in general, I teach paleography as an investigative tool.

To help you acquire the basic skills in an efficient fashion, I developed the SILReST Paleography Method. SILReST is an initialism, or what you might think of as an acronym. SILReST is a systematic process of six strategies for deciphering documents. Briefly, the essential strategies are:

  • S. Strategy #1 – Scan the entire document before attempting to transcribe it.
  • I. Strategy #2 – Identify those letters, abbreviations, and numbers that you can immediately recognize
  • L. Strategy #3 – Locate common words to (a) understand how the scribe connects their letters together and (b) recognize other alphabetical letters and numbers.
  • R. Strategy #4 – Recognize the abbreviations used in the document and if they vary within the document.
  • S. Strategy #5 – Search for English-Spanish cognates (those words that share similar meanings and spellings in English and Spanish) to identify more letters and connections.
  • T. Strategy #6 – Type or write your transcription and leave plenty of room to add edits.

In this course, you will employ this method to learn how to confront even the most difficult “hands” presented in manuscripts.

We will study letters, numbers, abbreviations, words, and marginalia from original manuscripts held by the Archivo Municipal de Burgos (Spain), Archivo de la Catedral de Burgos (Spain), Archivo Municipal de Toledo (Spain), Archivo y Biblioteca Capitular de Toledo (Spain), Archivo Municipal de Plasencia (Spain), and the Archivo de la Catedral de Plasencia (Spain).

In addition, we will evaluate the historical context in which these documents — royal donations and privileges, church administrative records, and other related manuscripts — were generated in medieval Spain. To assist with your study of medieval Spanish manuscripts, we will also investigate the institutions that hold these documents (archives and libraries) and the “finding aids” used to locate documents.

Course Learning Objectives

  • Demonstrate proficiency with the SILReST paleography method to decipher letters, numbers, and abbreviations for previously untranscribed manuscripts.
  • Assess how 11th through 13th century Spanish and Latin letters, numbers, and some abbreviations were written.
  • Employ online resources and tools that can aid you with introductory paleography.
  • Demonstrate proficiency with introductory paleography for 11th through 13th century Spanish and Latin.

Final Course Project

Medieval Spanish/Latin Paleography Manual – 11th – 13th Century

For this project, you will evaluate three (3) unique Spanish/Latin manuscripts from the 11th through 13th centuries and prepare a custom alphabetical, numeric, and abbreviation guide. You will use Deciphering Secrets’ paleography method (known as SILREST) to identify each letter of the alphabet and to document at least ten abbreviations or numerals record in the manuscript. When appropriate, you will document variations in the forms of letters/numbers/abbreviations.

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