The following is a letter drafted by the Advocacy Committee of the ICMA and mailed today to Kings College. It represents our unease at the potential loss of so valuable a position and our hopes that the relevant authorities will reconsider their position. Many thanks to James D’Emilio, Chair of Advocacy and his committee for working so diligently on this. Colum Professor Rick Trainor. The Principal
The Strand, London WC2R 2LS
Professor Jan Palmowski, Head
School of Arts and Humanities
The Strand, London WC2R 2LS
Dear Profs. Trainor and Palmowski:
We are writing on behalf of the International Center of Medieval Art, an organization with over five hundred members in twenty countries, to express our dismay over the reported plan to eliminate the Chair in Palaeography at King’s College. We understand the financial challenges facing educational and cultural institutions, but we believe that this would be an ill-advised and short-sighted action with negative repercussions for a broad spectrum of disciplines, programs, and professionals in the Humanities, and, therefore, for the wider public that enjoys and benefits from the presentation of the European historical and cultural heritage in diverse settings and media.
Palaeography is not an everyday word, and the idea of dedicating oneself to the study of “old writing” can easily be caricatured as the most esoteric of pursuits. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is only through handwritten manuscripts and documents that the history and written culture of the Middle Ages was recorded, and the legacy of classical antiquity transmitted. The edicts of kings, the sentences of judges, the contracts of merchants, the meditations of nuns, the debates of schoolmen, the songs of poets, and the wills of ordinary women and men come down to us in handwriting that must be authenticated, deciphered, contextualized and interpreted, with the patient and careful application of visual skills, linguistic expertise, and understanding of the material technology of writing. Acquiring such knowledge and experience is a painstaking task demanding intellectual rigor and a rare combination of skills, and the corps of scholars who study and teach in this field are at the heart of the Humanities. The methods and skills they teach are valuable tools across many disciplines in the contemporary university, but, for those in the Humanities, the loss of their expertise would silence a thousand years of European civilization.
Remarkable though these skills are, they are not the whole story of what makes palaeography a critical discipline, for it does far more than provide a “service” to students of the history, art, literature, music, and learning of the past. In a world before printing, writing was a fundamental technology, and the study of the written word is itself a door to understanding the European past. To investigate writing, education, and literacy in the Middle Ages is to penetrate to the core of the processes that sustained the culture and institutions of medieval Christianity, and that laid the foundations of modern states, cities, universities, and commercial enterprises. It is sadly ironic that it would be an educational institution, and one with such a distinguished history, that would deal this blow to the study of written culture.
We urge you to reconsider this decision. King’s College has a long history of distinction in the fields of medieval studies, and Francis Wormald, Julian Brown and Tilly de la Mare, past holders of the chair of Palaeography, have been among the most renowned scholars in this discipline. The present chair, David Ganz, is a distinguished historian and philologist, well-known to many of our members. The extraordinary collections of the British Library, the proximity of the manuscript collections at Cambridge and Oxford, and the concentration of faculty and students in the region make King’s College, London an ideal venue for the only established chair in Palaeography in the United Kingdom. We sincerely hope that the Chair will flourish for a long time to come.
James D’ Emilio,
Chair of The Advocacy Committee, International Center of Medieval Art