Learning to read old writing is not a task to be undertaken lightly. Anyone who has admired an ancient manuscript written in a language they profess to read recognizes this instantly.
If you don’t, glance at the page to the left. Do you know what language it is written in? If you guessed Latin, you are correct. However, it is not just any Latin, but a specific Latin script from a particular time and place.
The practice of palaeography allows scholars to date and read texts from the past. Such research requires meticulous and painstaking attention to detail. Each language differs in its forms, abbreviations, letter styles, how letters join together, and many more elements. Then they must consider changing spellings and meanings of words over time even in a single language. I am a rank beginner who knows the merest basics. Yet I can see that it is often necessary to study the form of writing before studying its content to determine what sources are saying.
Palaeography, or learning to read old writing, is a form of decoding. It allows researches to understand the past by transforming the meanings of cuniform or hieroglyphic symbols into modern terms. France honours Jean-François Champollion who first deciphered the hieroglyphs for this transformative work. Palaeographers undertake equally important work when they make works in Carolingian, medieval and renaissance handwriting available to modern historians.
Free online palaeography resources
For those who want to learn to read old writing, it is now possible online. This is remarkable in such an arcane field. The link below takes you to an article about palaeography and on-line links to learn it.