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Thomas Astle Issues the First English History of Paleography and Diplomatics


In 1784 archivist, paleographer and antiquary Thomas Astle, Keeper of Records in the Tower of London, published The Origin and Progress of Writing, as well Hieroglyphic and Elementary, Illustrated by Engravings Taken from Marbles, Manuscripts and Charters, Ancient and Modern: Also, some account of the Origin and Progress of Printing. This work was probably the earliest treatise on paleography in English, and the earliest English work on diplomatics, the "science of diplomas, or of ancient writings, literary and public documents, letters, decrees, charters, codicils, etc., which has for its object to decipher old writings, to ascertain their authenticity, their date, signatures, etc." Astle also provided detailed summaries of the history of writing materials— parchment, vellum, and paper, including Chinese paper— and a well-informed summary of the history of printing and typography in Europe. The colored plates in this work may be the first color plates published in a treatise on paleography.

By hieroglyphs, Astle meant "picture-writing," and used as examples pictograms by the ancient Maya and the Egyptians.

Astle was well aware that the Romans brought literacy to Britain, and that after the departure of the Romans from Britain in 427 Britain reverted to illiteracy, writing on p. 96:

"After the most diligent inquiry it doth not appear, that the Britons had the use of letters before their intercourse with the Romans. Although alphabets have been produced, which are said to have been used by the Ancient Britons, yet no one MS. ever appeared that was written in them. (I have several of these pretended alphabets in my collection; though they are only Roman letters deformed.) Cunoboline, king of Britain, who lived in the reigns of the emperors Tiberius and Caligula, erected different mints in this island, and coined money in gold, silver and copper, inscribed with Roman characters.(Many of these coins are preserved in the elaborate dissertation of the Rev. Mr. Pegges, on the coins of Cunoboline; and many particulars concerning this prince appear in the hist. of Manchester, by Mr. Whitaker, vol. I p. 284, 372, and in his corrections, chap. ix.). From the coming of Julius Caesar, till the time the Romans left the island in the year 427, the Roman letters were as familiar to the eyes of the inhabitants, as their language to their ears, as the numberless inscriptions, coins, and other monuments of the Romans still remaining amongst us, sufficiently evince. (See several monuments inscribed with Roman British characters in Borlace's Hist. of Cornwall, p. 391, 396. See more in Warburton's Vallum Romanum, London, 1753, 4to). However, we are of opinion, that writing was very little practised by the Britons, till after the coming of St. Augustin, about the year 596.

"The Saxons, who were invited hither by the Britons, and who arrived about the year 449, were unacquainted with letters. The characters which they afterwards used, were adopted by them in the island, and though the writing in England from the fifth to the middle of the eleventh century is called Saxon (The architecture in England, which preceded the Gothic, is usually called Saxon, but it is in fact Roman.) it will presently appear, that the letters used in this island were derived from the Roman, and were really Roman in their origin, and Italian in their structure at first, but were barbarized in their aspect by the British Romans and Roman Britons. A great variety of capital letters were used by the Saxons in their MSS. of which many specimens are given in our plates."

Note that in the quotation from Astle above I have added in his footnotes to the paragraphs in parentheses, to provide a more complete example of Astle's scholarship.

The numerous plates in Astle's volume are beautifully produced through engraving, some printed in a single color, and some colored by hand. The scan provided on the Internet by Google books is not reflective of the fine quality of the printed images or of the overall fine quality of book production shown in Astle's deluxe publication.

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