French Renaissance Paleography


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About Calligraphy Books

Writing manuals offer essential information for the history of handwriting in the early modern period: cultural and ideological settings; teaching methods; technical parameters such as quill-cutting, ink-making, and the many subtleties of handling the pen; the typology of scripts; and questions of style, from general trends and changes to stylistic affinities or influences between single masters. These manuals are a hybrid product, part book and part set of prints, reproducing documents usually dealt out to students of handwriting in manuscript form. The Newberry Library houses the world's most extensive (several hundred) and well-balanced collection of early copybooks from European countries, and we have incuded a dozen extraordinary French examples in this site.

The printed manuals were the product of collaboration between writing masters and engravers, and marketed almost exclusively via printsellers. Many titles went through several editions and printings with differences ranging from inconspicuous alterations to an entirely different set of plates under a similar title; conversely, different printings of identical plates might be found under different titles. Book collectors of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries later reconstructed or reshuffled the contents of many copies. The overall survival rate is extremely low, with many editions known from a single copy, or a handful.

Of the many European writing manuals engraved and printed from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, those published in France are the least well known. There are close to 100 known French authors, 500 titles, and 2,100 copies in existence, scattered in libraries across Europe and North America. It has become increasingly clear that the French masters need to be considered in a wider context. They imitated foreign calligraphers and in turn were imitated abroad. There is even evidence that one or two of the most important eighteenth-century Italian copybooks were "ghost-written" in Paris.

Marc H. Smith

Professor of Paleography

Ecole Nationale des Chartes, Paris


Here are a few publications that discuss the context in which the corporation of "maîtres écrivains" in Paris was created, as well as the significance of calligraphy manuals in the teaching of handwriting:

- Hébrard, Jean. "Des écritures exemplaires: l'art du maître écrivain en France du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle." Mélanges de l'École française de Rome. Italie et Méditerranée 107 no. 2 (1995): 473-523.

- Métayer, Christine. "De l'école au palais de justice: l'itinéraire singulier des maîtres écrivains de Paris (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles)." Annales. Économies. Sociétés. Civilisations 45 no. 5 (1990): 1217-37.

- Métayer, Christine. "Normes graphiques et pratiques de l'écriture. Maîtres écrivains et écrivains publics à Paris aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles." Annales. Histoire. Sciences Sociales 56 no. 4 (2001): 881-901.

- Wells, James M. "The Bureau Académique d'Écriture: A Footnote to the History of French Calligraphy." The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 51, no. 3 (1957): 203-16 (available on JSTOR).


See also:

- Claude Mediavilla. Histoire de la calligraphie française. Paris: Albin Michel, 2006.

- Françoise Gaspari. "Enseignements et techniques de l'écriture du Moyen Âge à la fin du XVIe siècle." Scrittura e civiltà 7 (1983): 201-22.