Can you read this writing exercise from the eighteenth century?
If so, then congratulations/condolences; you are a German super nerd!
In not, do not despair--historians of medieval and early modern Germany can overcome paleographical challenges.
Fortunately, there are a few paleography courses to speed the learning process. Probably the best known of these courses is the one taught by the Moravian Church Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I know two historians who participated in this course and they were both satisfied with this two-week introduction to old German script. This is the most expensive of the three German paleography courses ($700 + housing) that I know of and the only one that I haven´t taken.
I participated in two other courses this summer in preparation for my dissertation research and will reflect on them in this blog entry.
The first course was run by the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC and specifically targeted American doctoral students to encourage scholarship of German subjects. Applications for this two-week archival seminar were due at the end December (with a follow-up interview to test applicants’ language ability). The seminar itself took place at the end of June. The GHI covered the cost of transportation to and from Germany with the bonus that I could arrange my own travel plans and therefore pick when and where I arrive and departed (very handy if you want to tack on other things in Europe).
The GHI´s program provided a very broad overview of German archival skills because the ca. 10 participants were studying different periods of German history. The first week of the seminar was full-on paleography training with archivists at the Landesarchiv in Speyer. The second week was a whirlwind of visits to different types of German research institutions from the Archbishop´s archive in Köln to the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek in Leipzig (Germany´s Library of Congress).
This provided a gradual and very comfortable entrée into the intimidating world of German research; everything was prepared for us, we weren’t expected to know everything from the get-go, and there were even lectures about organizing the dissertation and using digital research tools in Germany. The archive tours got a bit redundant by the second week of the seminar, but otherwise, I passed a very enjoyable two weeks with fellow Americans interested in German history (a small subset of the population) and with archivists who were excited to exhibit their treasures.
I was also very pleased with the second course I participated in at the end of the summer. I did this week-long program in Halle as a stopover between California and Berlin (my research home for the year). It gave me confidence to be practicing my paleography skills right up until I went to the archives alone.
The delightful librarians and archivists at the Franckesche Stiftung in Halle organize this paleography seminar every summer. The Franckesche Stiftung was re-founded after the fall of the DDR as a study center, historical library, and museum (they call themselves a “modern educational cosmos closely connected to their history”) to honor the tradition of their Pietist founder, August Hermann Francke. .
The Halle course was a mixture of handwriting reading (mostly in small groups) and lectures about how to do different types of early modern research (genealogical, biographical, and research with printed materials). I was surprised how little the information about research overlapped in the two courses this summer and I still found the information about research at Halle to be new useful (I think it just goes to show how many possibilities there are for where to look for information!).
The Halle program required a bit more personal responsibility than the GHI program because it was not designed for foreign students (I was the only person who came from outside of Germany for the course). Everyone in this course seemed to pick up the paleography relatively easily and I was somewhere in the middle skill-wise, thanks to the GHI course. The Stiftung at Halle was very atmospheric and I got to stay in longest half-timbered building in Germany (for only 10€/night!).
From both programs, I came away with a lot of practical advice and a feeling that completing my dissertation research was an achievable goal. Here are some tips for reading old German handwriting from one of the archivists in Halle:
There are also practice guides online. Here´s an attractive site, but really, if you Google “German paleography,” you will find many sites devoted to the subject.
Sadly, all of these research Hilfsmittel do not eliminate the challenges of reading old German handwriting; hands differ widely depending on the period, place and individual author. The sources you read will (hopefully) be particular to your research and therefore you will become the expert handwriting decipherer for your research subjects. Experienced researchers at the archives this summer told me that the only way to learn the skills you need to read your sources is to practice and slog your way through the first few months in the archives. I have heard that, similar to learning a language, there is a point a few months into immersion when things “click.” There are just growing pains in achieving archival fluency!
Along with designated time to practice reading this summer, the biggest thing I gained from both paleography seminars was the knowledge that it is okay to struggle with reading early modern writing (it´s hard for everyone!) and that with diligence and time, these documents will begin to reveal their secrets.
Then, I can proudly claim membership in the exclusive (self-selective) club of German history super nerds!
Till then, I remain
Reposted from Defunct CMEMS Blog, October 2011.