In this post Keri Nicholson from Lancashire Archives talks about attending a summer school at Keele University to gain more experience in Latin and Paleography
Our collections at Lancashire Archives are full of documents written in Latin, from medieval deeds to Catholic registers, but these can pose an understandable problem, both for our staff and users. Not only do we have to cope with documents written in a language which, for many, will be unfamiliar, but there are then the added problems of unusual letter forms and abbreviation marks to contend with.
As someone who never studied Latin at school I have always found this aspect of my job the most daunting. I did take a short Latin course as part of my archive qualification but as the focus of the module was on classical Latin and grammar, I found that it offered little help when it came to tackling real documents. In an effort to try to bridge some of these gaps in my professional skills I was able to secure a Registration Scheme bursary to attend the Latin and Paleography summer school held each year at Keele University.
The course has been running for 39 years and as a measure of its success is perhaps the number of repeat visitors, with one student having been to every single school. Each year there are two beginner’s classes in Latin grammar and reading medieval documents, and then additional specialist classes for those who are more confident with their Latin skills.
I chose to attend the course on reading medieval documents. Around two months before the course began I was sent scanned copies of the documents we would be studying which included a range of deeds as well as manorial court rolls, accounts and wills. We were all expected to make an attempt to transcribe the documents in advance of the class, and so I arrived at Keele with partial translations and a huge number of gaps.
After registration I had a chance to unpack and settle in to my accommodation before our evening meal and the first talk of the week. Each evening either a member of the teaching staff or a fellow student on the course would give a talk on a subject in some way relevant to the course, demonstrating the ways in which the Latin skills we were developing could be utilised. The evening sessions also gave an opportunity to meet our fellow students and teachers in a less formal setting than the classes which would take place during the day.
We were told in advance the format of the class which involved moving around the group with each student expected to read out a line in Latin, before we would work out the meaning of the document in English and be offered a translation. However, I’m still not sure that this prepared me for just how intimidating an experience it could be. The position I had chosen to sit in meant that I was only the second student to be asked to read aloud, and after hearing the first line read, and after hearing the first line read with little problem I really struggled to get through the second. Immediately I had worries that I had chosen the wrong course and that my limited abilities were not going to be able to cope with the work we had been given. However, as we continued to work around the class, I found that I wasn’t the only one having difficulties which reassured me that perhaps we were all, in fact, in a similar position and there was no need to feel quite so nervous about my own skills.
As the week progressed we continued to read through the documents and it was heartening to see the progress of everyone attending the course, as words and abbreviations which had been difficult to identify to begin with became more recognisable. Probably the most important lesson I took away was not to be afraid to turn to sources for help. Eileen Gooder’s ‘Latin for Local History,’ in particular, has a fantastic formulary showing some typical document formats which was extremely useful as so many of the examples we were studying used exactly the same words and phrases as the documents in the book.
I returned from the study school mentally exhausted but also full of new information, from a greatly expanded vocabulary to a better understanding of the rote phrases and formats of many of the documents in our care. Probably the greatest surprise was simply how much enjoyment I got from the course. The combination of the beautiful surroundings of Keele Hall and the many new people I met made for a brilliant week. For anyone looking to brush up on their own Latin skills, I can’t recommend the course highly enough, and I’m extremely grateful to the ARA Registration Scheme Committee for helping to fund my attendance.