Skip to main content
European Commission logo print header

NOT A writtEn word but graphic symbols. NOTAE: An evidence-based reconstruction of another written world in pragmatic literacy from Late Antiquity to early medieval Europe.

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - NOTAE (NOT A writtEn word but graphic symbols. NOTAE: An evidence-based reconstruction of another written world in pragmatic literacy from Late Antiquity to early medieval Europe.)

Reporting period: 2021-07-01 to 2022-12-31

What kind of history could connect the combination of greek letters tau and rho traced by an anonymous hand in a latin document written on slate in visigothic Spain during the reign of King Recaredo (581-601 AD) and the same graphic device (a staurogram) drawn in 505 AD in Egypt by Theophanes, count of military affairs of the late Roman state, in an order on papyrus issued by himself in Greek, at the beginning of his signature written in Latin in his own hand? What kind of paths could be followed without running the risk of being naïve, in order to connect the crosses drawn all over the post roman West by illiterates giving their consent, testifying their presence, expressing their identity on written records to similar signs drawn by illiterates in the late Roman state? What kind of interpretation could ever be possible to explain the similar complex sign we can observe in signatures written in Greek in byzantine Egypt by notaries and in signatures written in Latin in their own hand by laymen, not necessarily professional scribes, in byzantine Italy or by Frankish aristocrats in merovingian France or by bishops in lombard Italy?
The project NOTAE – NOT A writtEn word but graphic symbols. An evidence-based reconstruction of another written world in pragmatic literacy from Late Antiquity to early medieval Europe – aims to answer to these and other similar questions: it represents the first attempt to investigate the presence of graphic symbols in documentary records as a historical phenomenon from Late Antiquity to early medieval Europe.
Graphic symbols are meant as graphic entities, composed by graphic signs, including alphabetical ones, drawn as a visual unit whithin a written text, but communicating something other, or something more, than a word of that text. We say symbol and not sign, because there is no intrinsic prior relationship between the message-bearing graphic entity and the informations conveyed by it. Even when it seems to us – men and women of the 21th century – simply and clear (as in Fig. 1), the message is in any case to discover, because that graphic entity is an object of historical investigation.
Our sources are texts generated for pragmatic purposes: petitions, official and private letters, lists, receipts, authentics from relics, contracts and so on written on papyrus, wooden tablets, slates, parchment. In particular, legal documents enable to relate graphic symbols to illiterate people: the gradual introduction of signatures in the legal documentary practice meant an increasing use of graphic symbols not only by literate people writing their subscriptions in their own hands but also by illiterate contract partners or witnesses, who performed graphic symbols by their own hands in the empty space left for it in the line of their subscription written by the scribe or by a delegated third-party literate person.
In conclusion, NOTAE aims to investigate the graphic symbols in order to capture all the possible historical implications by studying their graphic execution as well as their models and cross influences, their context and transmission, with the purpose to frame also the category of illiterates in terms of gender and social status, for each significant period and region involved in the research, with the particular challenge represented by problematic evidences preserved in a problematic documentary transmission.
We have so far analysed in-depth more than 2100 original documents: greek and coptic papyri from Egypt (300-600 AD), latin documents on diverse media from the West (400-700 AD). For this work we have elaborated an original ad-hoc created protocol of description, which has the specific function of framing both the documentary context of graphic symbols and the graphic symbols in documentary context, and takes into account the most recent theoretical achievements in papyrology, palaeography, juridical papyrology, diplomatics, social and economic history, cultural and religious studies. The elaboration of this protocol is strictly related to the creation of the NOTAE System, the second main activity of the period, carried out in order to create the essential research tool of the proiect that will allow to connect in a significant way the data collected by studying and analysing each individual document. Fig. 2 represents only the high-level conceptual schema of the NOTAE System, since each concept may include tens of specific features and attributes. The database is populated thanks to a web application specifically created, the NOTAE Curator WebApp, represented in Fig. 3. In addition to traditional queries based on keywords, the NOTAE Curator WebApp allows to explore data resulting from research tasks in NOTAE also from a historical and geographical point of view: a navigable map allows to locate in time and space graphic symbols (Fig. 4 shows its interface). We developed also a prototyp for automatic detection and classification of symbols from digital reproduction, which we called "Symbol Engine" (Fig. 5); it is intended as a step towards developing a novel contribution in the field of the digital palaeography. We worked also on the first version of the "NOTAE Knowledge Graph", which allows advanced queries and visualization functionalities, in order to discover geographical and historical implications of the use of graphic symbols.
The project NOTAE aims to historicizing graphic symbols as material traces left by human hands on the border between written and oral culture, educated literacy and poor graphic abilities of illitterates. This means to be already beyond the state of the art, because there has so far been nothing comparable in the studies. The inspection of all the preserved evidences provides an inventory of graphic symbols and a collection of their images. Examining each document means studying the presence of graphic symbols in their context, classifying and interpreting them, relating each symbol to a social, historical, geographical context. It means also studying silences and blanks concerning the use of graphic symbols in documentary tradition. Since no research exists without comparison, also a synchronic analysis implies always a minimum significant level of diachronicity, wich will result in publications on case studies concerning specific groups of sources, specific historical periods and areas. Since documents, scripts and signs are investigated in a novel perspective, such case studies will bring new knowledge and significant contributions in the specific field of palaeography, both latin and greek. The primary purpose of the project, however, implies wide-ranging comparative and diachronic investigations, in order to historically understand the presence and the absence of graphic symbols in pragmatic literacy of the period in question and to publish the results in monographs. Carrying out such investigations requires a system, in which all the data collected through the analysis of each evidence are connected significantly: this is the NOTAE System. Currently a research tool of the project, it will become at the end one of its main outputs: an evidence based historical and dynamic Atlas of graphic symbols preserved from Late Antiquity to early Middle Ages, available to all those scholars who will be interested in this peculiar graphic inheritance from the past and in what it can communicate as historical source, if properly queried.