John Crace: Writing Off the UK's Last Palaeographer

Historians in the News

[John Crace is a feature writer for the Guardian.]

Dry, dusty and shortly to be dead. Palaeographers are used to making sense of fragments of ancient manuscripts, but King's College London couldn't have been plainer when it announced recently that it was to close the UK's only chair of palaeography. From ­September, the current holder of the chair, Professor David Ganz, will be out of a job, and the subject will no longer exist as a separate academic discipline in British universities. Its survival will now depend entirely on the whim of classicists and medievalists studying in other fields....

...Professor Ganz – the fourth person to have held the chair since it was endowed in 1949 – didn't roll over and die quietly. "On the assumption that this means the end of the chair of palaeography, I am having to fight for my subject," he says, "and I have been deeply moved by the level of support from friends, many of whom I have never met."

That's pretty much all Ganz is saying for now – but, having initially raised a very restrained, academic form of hell, others are now doing the talking for him. A Facebook page to save the chair has more than 4,000 members, and many of the world's most distinguished classicists have petitioned King's to ­reconsider its position. Even his ­students are stepping in to defend him. "Without a palaeography professor such as David Ganz, not only will King's be sorely deprived of a basis on which to teach almost every other university discipline," says Alexandra Maccarini, "but the study of humanities everywhere will suffer from the absence of a devoted specialist in the subject."

In its strictest sense, palaeography is the study of ancient manuscripts whereby scholars can read texts – often partial, as many exist only in fragments – and localise and date handwriting accurately. This may sound arcane, and to some extent it is. But it is also the building block of all classical and ­medieval scholarship. According to Ganz: "Anyone who goes into a ­university library will within a week find an ancient manuscript that no one has yet properly understood."

"It is academic forensic science," agrees Dr Irving Finkel, assistant keeper in the department of the ­Middle East at the British Museum. "Many of the printed texts we use today – be they the Bible, Livy's poems or Shakespeare's plays – do not come from a single text. They are a collation of various manuscripts that may have been altered by scribes over time. A palaeographer can help determine which is likely to be the most authentic....

"Palaeography is not simply an arcane auxiliary science," says Professor Jeffrey Hamburger, chair of medieval studies at Harvard University. "It is as basic to the training and practice of ­historians as mastery of Dos or Unix might be to a computer scientist....

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