Confronting Portuguese palaeography: ‘You never know ’til you know’

By Koldo Trápaga Monchet

In recent years, Portugal has become more popular as a tourist destination, which is perfectly understandable if we take into account its beauty, the weather, the high quality gastronomy, or its considerably low prices. However, Spaniards have mainly considered Portugal as home to our poor neighbours rather than as an excellent environment to visit or even live in. Subconsciously, we Spaniards have been reproducing the exact same attitude that the French had toward us: that is, we turn our backs to them.

From a historical viewpoint, the Portuguese national character has been characterized by the country’s opposition to Spain. For example, on 1 December 1640, the Duke of Braganza proclaimed himself King of Portugal, leading to the 28 Years War against Philip IV, who had been the King of Portugal up until then. Henceforth, every December 1st was acknowledged as Portugal’s Independence Day. For some 470 years, the day when Portugal denied the Spanish crown once and for all was celebrated throughout the country. The holiday has only recently been reduced in importance by the Troika, the 3-part commission in charge of monitoring the Portuguese debt crisis who took control over the government’s revenue. They introduced a large range of fiscal measures, one of which was to cut national holidays, including Independence Day, in order to increase the nation’s productivity.

While this process was taking place, I was lucky to be hired by the New University of Lisbon with a three-year contract to be involved with the ForSEAdiscovery project. One of the required qualifications for the job was to be able to deal with early modern Portuguese handwriting. At reading this job requirement, I remember being quite amazed as I realized that I had never read Portuguese handwriting from this period, even though I had spent five years of my life reading Spanish, French, Belgian, and Italian manuscripts. Could this be understood as the typical Spanish behaviour of overlooking Portugal? Being honest, I had never even been in Portugal before. I really knew nothing about my neighbours!

Tomo 22 (arrastrado) Spanish palaeolography-page-001

Example of Spanish palaeography from a document in the Archivo General Militar de Madrid (AGMM), vol. 22, f. 196v (reverse). Photo taken by Jose Luis Gasch Tomas.

Nonetheless, a good workmate and friend of mine, Félix Labrador, who had researched in Portugal over several years and to whom I am deeply grateful, encouraged me to focus on the Portuguese historical sources in order to be ready for the challenge of dealing with old Portuguese sources. Furthermore, he provided me with some manuscripts to get used to the ‘particularities’ of Portuguese palaeography.

At that time, I was certainly unaware of the challenge I would come to face over the following months. As I opened up the first practice file, a poker face assumed position, and while several gasps were stifled, a drop of sweat running down that poker face would have revealed my cards to anyone looking.


Example (and not the worst one by any means!) of Portuguese palaeography from a document in the Arquivo Historico Ultramarino (AHU, Lisbon), Conselho Ultramarino, Caixa 2, folder 13. Photo by the author.

Consequently, I changed the direction of my research in Portugal, and I started to research in Portuguese and Spanish libraries and archives. To my pleasant surprise, the first research papers in Arquivo Histórico/Biblioteca do Ministério das Obras Públicas (my knowledge thereof is due to Cristina Joanaz de Melo to whom I am grateful) were not as indecipherable as I was expecting, so I felt a huge sense of relief and became increasingly comfortable with my new trajectory. I ordered another archive section and suddenly my former poker face turned into one of utter despair and an inaudible scream rumbled through my throat. Like it or not, I was faced with spending half an hour or even an hour to understand a single page. But, as time went on, I actually started enjoying the task, which changed my overall attitude toward Portuguese palaeography, the country, its people, their handwriting, and their gastronomy. As our dear experienced researcher in wood science, Peter Groenendijk, likes to remind us, “You never know ’til you know.”

Dr. Koldo Trápaga Monchet is currently carrying out his research at Instituto de Arqueologia y Paleociências at the New University of Lisbon as a Marie Curie ITN fellow.



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