Deciphering Secrets

Unlocking the Manuscripts of Medieval Spain

Spanish Paleography and Historical Resources

A key component of Deciphering Secrets is offering paleographic (“studying and reading old forms of handwriting”) and historical instruction related to the Spanish Middle Ages, a period that roughly corresponds to the 5th through 15th centuries of the common era.

Video Lectures Pertaining to Paleography

One method manner to approach paleograhy is the SILReST Paleographic Method developed by Dr. Martinez-Davila for online audiences. This method teaches paleography to non-specialists in two to three weeks of instruction. SILReST is an initialism, or what we might think of as an acronym. Each letter in SILReST represents one of six strategies. A brief explanation of the strategies is as follows:

  • S. Strategy #1 – Scan the entire document before attempting to transcribe it. It is important for you to become familiar with how the scribe writes. Repeatedly scanning a document will accustom your eyes to the “hand” of the scribe.
  • I. Strategy #2 – Identify those letters, abbreviations, and numbers that you can immediately recognize. This is very straightforward, but it is the beginning of finding your way into the document. Finding easy-to-recognize letters will help you to appreciate how much you can already see and spur you along to uncover other letters and words.
  • L. Strategy #3 – Locate common words to (a) understand how the scribe connects their letters together and (b) recognize other alphabetical letters and numbers. This strategy helps you identify letters that are hard to recognize. If you are flexible in terms of how a common word might be spelled, then, you will be able to see many curious spellings of words you know. More importantly, you can find new letters using this strategy.
  • R. Strategy #4 – Recognize the abbreviations used in the document and if they vary within the document. Finding and marking abbreviations makes your task easier because it reminds you that some words on the page are not complete words at all. Rather, they are almost nonsensical connections of letters. Find the abbreviations so that your eyes and mind do not attempt to create words that do not exist on the page.
  • 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. Cognates are helpful because you can work “backwards” into reading letters on the page. For example, if you know the word might be “jurisdiction” in English and therefore is “jurisdicion” in Spanish, then you can begin to identify hard to read letters within the word on the page.
  • T. Strategy #6 – Type or write your transcription and leave plenty of room to add edits. Creating a transcript will help you fill in the blanks as you work through those last, hard to read letters and words.

Below are video overviews of SILReST:

Video series

Paleographic Resources (e-publications, practicums)

Deciphering Secrets Practicums

Machine-grade practice exams are available within the Deciphering Secrets Massive Open Online Courses on coursera.org. See: https://www.coursera.org/instructor/rogermartinez

Deciphering Secrets – Advanced Paleography Homework V1.0

Paleography Sources

Becoming accustomed to the “hand” of a scribe is a process that requires (1) repeated exposure to their writing and (2) access to sample handwritings from different persons. I have collected a few of the more useful resources and would like to share these resources with you. Happy “deciphering”!

Alphabet Page (Right-click to download high resolution image)

Muñoz y Rivero, Jesus. Manual de Paleografía Diplomática Española de los Siglos XII al XVII. Madrid: Tipolit L. Faure, 1917

Medieval Writing: Index of Scripts
CUNY Dominican Studies Institute – Spanish Paleography Digital Teaching & Learning Tool
BYU Department of History and the Center for Family History and Genealogy – Alphabet Charts
Collection of English-Spanish Language Resourcesread in English (or another language). It works best for the contemporary usage of language and not older language usage.
Google Translate is a good place to start, but it is not a reliable translation tool for comprehension.
To understand contemporary Spanish, you will need to study and practice the language. And remember, there are many spoken forms of Spanish.
To understand medieval Spanish, you have to know contemporary Spanish and medieval Spanish culture (language, vocabulary, grammar; religion(s); literature; art history; material culture; politics and historical context).
However, you definitely should try to understand medieval Spanish!The more you read and study it, the more you will understand it. And I firmly believe — practically anyone — can be an excellent researcher. You do not need to be a full-time scholar or researcher to perform this type of scholarship. In fact, practical and applied life experience is more helpful to understand the types of documents we study in this course.

Collection of English-Spanish Language Resources

Often, you can improve your Spanish paleography by using an array of English-Spanish language resources. Among the biggest challenges is medieval Spanish vocabulary, which uses varied spellings and words that no longer are used in modern Spanish. As you can imagine, life was fairly different 600+ years ago. This was a different age — before the information age, the age of electricity, the age of industrialization and the combustion engine, the age of mechanization,…before the European Enlightenment, and earlier than the Protestant Reformation.

Similarly, we know the very first vernacular grammar book for any European language was written by Antonio de Nebrija. His Gramática de la lengua castellana was not published until 1492 CE — at least 100 years before the many of the advanced and intermediate manuscript, we are using in this course. Even the introductory manuscripts that we are using — those from the 18th and 19th centuries — often use words from earlier centuries.

Thus, the language of the manuscripts we are studying is quite different. What can we do to help ourselves? The most immediate resources that are available at your fingertips are online dictionaries.

To find older spellings of words, as well as words that are no longer used very often in Spanish, I highly recommend:

Diccionario de la lengua española — Real Academia Española (Links to an external site.) — http://dle.rae.es/?w=diccionario (Links to an external site.)
  • Overall, this is the best online dictionary for current and older Spanish vocabulary.
  • Additionally, the dictionary will present other words that have similar spellings to the word you are searching for. This is particularly helpful where a word’s spelling has migrated as in the case of the word, alférez (Links to an external site.).
Diccionario de autoridades — Real Academia Española (Links to an external site.) — http://web.frl.es/DA.html (Links to an external site.)
  • An earlier version of the RAE’s dictionary is the Diccionario de autoridades, which was compiled from 1726 to 1739.
  • This dictionary is helpful for understanding older terms and their usage. For example, perform a search (consulta) for “alcalde” and you will 17 entries.
SpanishDict.com — Spanish-English Dictionary and Verb Conjugator (Links to an external site.) — http://www.spanishdict.com/dictionary (Links to an external site.)
  • Once you have located the Spanish word, you can translate the word into English using this online resource. It isn’t a comprehensive dictionary, but it is fairly good and reliable. Also, it presents the usage of the Spanish word in several translated examples.
  • For example, look up the word, “alcalde” (Links to an external site.), or mayor. On the entry page, we now can read the English word and definition. We also can see associated words, like “ayuntamiento” (Links to an external site.), or city council.
Google Translate — (Links to an external site.)https://translate.google.com (Links to an external site.)
  • Google Translate is a basic resource for beginning to understand how a Spanish phrase or sentence might read in English (or another language). It works best for the contemporary usage of language and not older language usage.
  • Google Translate is a good place to start, but it is not a reliable translation tool for comprehension.
  • To understand contemporary Spanish, you will need to study and practice the language. And remember, there are many spoken forms of Spanish.
  • To understand medieval Spanish, you have to know contemporary Spanish and medieval Spanish culture (language, vocabulary, grammar; religion(s); literature; art history; material culture; politics and historical context).
  • However, you definitely should try to understand medieval Spanish!The more you read and study it, the more you will understand it. And I firmly believe — practically anyone — can be an excellent researcher. You do not need to be a full-time scholar or researcher to perform this type of scholarship. In fact, practical and applied life experience is more helpful to understand the types of documents we study in this course.

Video Lectures Pertaining to Spanish History

Deciphering Secrets MOOCs: Toledo, Spain
Video series
Deciphering Secrets MOOCs: Burgos, Spain
Video series