Cambridge decision to drop Paleography sparks protest

UPDATE: See the comments. “Kings College London is not connected to Kings College Cambridge.The post which has just been threatened with abolition is at London University”

Paleography is the study of old handwriting. Paleographers are the people read the odd scrawlings of ancient writers and translate them into modern print. Although this might not seem like a big money-making business, Paleography does provide an economic benefit to institutions and collectors of old manuscripts. When you’re looking at 1,000-year-old writing you cannot read, how do you know if it’s real or a fake?

A paleographer can create a forgery or detect one. Paleographers have stood on both sides of that fence but when you’re looking for the Ancient Manuscript Police to help you determine whether what you just spent $50,000 on was worthwhile, they have to be trained in Paleography.

There are a number of schools that teach Paleography, but the Faster Times reports that Cambridge London University has decided to get out of the Paleography business. Cambridge University London University is a prestigious institution. It’s high on the general list of stodgy old academic communities that should be revered for their wisdom and teaching repertoire. And it’s the only institution in the United Kingdom to offer a specialty in Paleography.

But now the university’s decision to eliminate its Chair of Paleography at King’s College London, has sparked a wave of online (and offline) protest from scholars and academics around the world. This is the only program in the United Kingdom devoted to the study of Paleography. The fragility of the program’s position was recognized in 1988 and 1995. Now the worst fears of “the Paleography Working Party of the now obsolete University Grants Committee in Britain” have been realized: Cambridge University London University has decided the Paleography Chair simply doesn’t sustain itself financially.

Supporters of Paleography at Cambridge have set up a Facebook page and a Save Paleography at King’s College London page to rally support from the masses. Of course, most of the masses have no idea of what Paleography is or the value it provides to society as a whole.

Paleography stands between us and feigned history. Paleography preserves a knowledge of the past that ensures we can continue to write scholarly essays, books, and magazine articles founded in a scientific understanding of what our predecessors wrote.

Paleography is the foundation of the study of how written language evolved and why it evolved in the specific directions it followed.

Paleography enables science fiction and fantasy books, comics, movies, and more to successfully emulate legitimate writing system in the universe of the imagination.

Paleography, in short, produces derivative economic value that does not easily or simply funnel support back to the academic world. And, unfortunately, every university has to figure out how to pay the bills.

It seems to me that if anything the people rallying to support the Cambridge Kings College London Chair should be looking for ways to support it financially. The university has little choice but to keep an economically viable program in place, right?

But more importantly, the lack of revenue may reflect a poor public relations schema in the Paleography community. Perhaps they have become a bit too stodgy and esoteric to seem relevant to a modern world that picks its fonts from a little virtual box on a computer screen. The Paleography community needs to do more than just bemoan the fate of Cambridge’s program. It needs to build up public awareness of the value of and need for Paleography, not only to encourage people to respect the field more but also to ensure that there will be more generations of Paleographers and more grants to Paleography programs.

Thanks to Mark Hall, one of our moderators at SF-Fandom, for bringing this to my attention. See his notice and followup discussion here.

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2 responses to “Cambridge decision to drop Paleography sparks protest

  1. Thanks very much for covering this- but just for correction Kings College London is not connected to Kings College Cambridge.The post which has just been threatened with abolition is at London University.
    The postholder David Ganz is very involved in digitising manuscripts and taking palaeography to a wider community. There’s a good piece here
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/feb/09/writing-off-last-palaeographer-university

  2. Thank you for the correction and the link. I have attempted to edit my article so that it more accurately reflects the real situation and makes some sort of sense.