Thursday, November 10, 2011

Handwriting and Humans

In a book that is very much of its time, The Key to the Family Deed Chest: How to Decipher and Study Old Documents, printed in 1893 and still available, Emma Thoyts Cope (described in that book as an historian, genealogist, and palaeographer) commingles graphological aspects of handwriting with diplomatics and a superficial form of palaeography. This hybridity between the science of scholarly subjects and the subjectivity of handwriting analysis is confirmed when Cope makes an explicit association of handwriting with personal character or mood:

If the subject of handwriting as a test of character is carefully studied, it will be found that immediate circumstances greatly influence it: anxiety or any great excitement of any kind, illness or any violent emotion, will for the moment greatly affect the writing. From handwriting the doctor can hazard an opinion as to the mental state of his patient. In all cases of paralysis the writing is temporarily affected, and the patient is usually at first deprived of the power of writing […]. It is not strange, then, that with so many causes upon which it depends, writing should be an excellent test of temperament and bodily health […] [so that from it we can contract] a habit of forming conclusions as to the mental and moral caliber of the writers (pp. 15-16).

It may seem far-fetched to assume that one can tell the ‘moral calibre’ of a writer from their handwriting, but there’s no doubt that it’s as human an endeavour as one can imagine, and it’s one of the reasons, of course, that autographs and holograph copies of authors’ manuscripts are still so widely sought. In what seems to be an overwhelmingly digital world, it’s good to know that an appreciation for the handwritten artefact is still significant. This is admirably focused upon in Wendy Stein’s short video on manuscript culture, here:

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