I’ve been thinking since last summer about how I recognize people, and what I identify as important details, and how this relates to ability to recognize scripts or font details. Last July, I attended a conference where I knew about three people beforehand. A very large group—forty?—went out to dinner one evening, scattered over three large tables. I sat next to an organizer who was trying to check us off a list; she knew her old friends, but wasn’t sure who many people were. After just two days with these people, I was able to fill in everyone else for her, and she said, “Do you specialize in type fonts, or something like that? You’re so good at recognizing details!”

As I’ve said, I don’t think I have a very good visual memory, and I tend to pick out the wrong details in handwriting. If, in a year’s time, I was again in a room with the people from the restaurant, I’m sure I’d have trouble recognizing about half of them. What I do is pick out details that will let me recognize and name them tonight, tomorrow, next week: this one has a cloud of long dark hair, that one has glasses like my grandfather’s, another has a sunburn. When people are animated, I identify the one who has a lively, crooked smile, another who gestures with his chin in a characteristic way,

Of these, the smile and the gesture are probably unchangeable and will help me recognize their owners next year. If the hair is cut or dyed, the glasses changed or removed, I’m lost. Unless features are really distinctive—a big nose, a pursed mouth, heavy eyebrows—I look at a face and see “Two eyes, check; nose, check; mouth, check; all present and accounted for, in the usual order top to bottom.” I have a terrible time recognizing many of my students, who are mostly young enough not to have developed distinctive wrinkles, and who tend to dress and groom themselves so as to meet conventional standards of attractiveness. The rare Goth or punk is a blessing. I always know who has the dyed black hair or the green streak, but a row of pretty young blonde women confuses me. Actresses and dancers are the worst: Sir John is constantly amazed that I can’t tell the difference between Actress X and Actress Y, and I am equally astounded that he can, even when they have cut and dyed their hair and gained or lost weight for a role.

So there are two kinds of recognizable details: those that provide present recognition (blonde ponytail, black geometric haircut, heavy glasses, dark lipstick, noticeably thin or heavy body) are often not helpful in the long term. The long-term recognizable details are things like movement (I always recognize Sir John by his walk, long before he’s close enough that I can see his face), body language, facial features that are in some way more than “two eyes, check”: particularly protuberant or deep-set eyes, a nose that is unusually small, tilted, large, or bumpy, a mouth that is especially wide, pinched, or thick-lipped. It sounds as if it’s easier for me to recognize ugly people, and in a way that’s true: but I also don’t tend to experience “ugly” as unattractive, because that face with the non-standard features is one I can recognize no matter what has happened with hair, beard, glasses, and other changeable details. I also try to look for features other people don’t necessarily look at: length of neck, breadth of shoulders, hands. These may change, too, if someone takes up or drops a weight-lifting regimen, for example; but they are less subject to change than hair.

What has all this to do with paleography? Paleographers need to be able to recognize both general characteristics, the details that let you tell Beneventan from Luxeuil, Anglicana from Secretary, and also specific characteristics, the elements that distinguish Scribe B from Scribe D when they are both writing a regular Anglicana, or tell that Scribe B is Scribe B whether he’s writing Anglicana or Secretary. I think the general characteristics are analagous to the details that let you recognize someone tonight, tomorrow, next week: the roundness, spacing and clarity that announce Insular Minuscule are like the long blond hair and flowing mustache. When the scribe switches scripts, it’s no good looking for the characteristics of Insular Minuscule; it’s as if the young man shaved his face and head. You have to look for the features and body language, the approach strokes and tendency to use ligatures (or not), in order to identify the same scribe using a different script. And if you’re stuck at “two eyes, check,” then you may note the presence or absence of feet, while completely missing something important about the ascenders; you may notice, in one sample, that the lines and letters are well-spaced, and in another, that they are crowded and cramped, without seeing that the letter shapes are identical.

This still happens to me. I go for general appearance, just as I do at conferences (so I won’t embarrass myself by failing to recognize someone I was introduced to yesterday!). I can recognize a Secretary hand, no bother; but is the tight, controlled inscription on folio 20 by the same hand that wrote the sloppier entry on folio 50? I look at letter shapes, but does that really help? Of course Secretary is going to have that funky h. Nose, check; mouth, check. Is the tight, controlled Secretary inscription on folio 20, in English, the same tight, controlled hand writing the lovely little Gothic comment in Latin on folio 35? Well, I’m like the Terry Pratchett demon who says, “That’s handwriting all right. Curly bits, spiky bits—I’d recognize it anywhere.”

It’s not that I’m always so great at the general characteristics, either (certainly not when I was in grad school). But I think now I can diagnose at least some of my difficulties as category confusion. If you’re trying to look at specific individual details (broken nose, funky h whose descender makes an unusual forward-and-back jiggle) when all you need is big-picture, recognize-tonight characteristics (blond mustache, round minuscule letters), then there will be trouble. Some of learning to see is learning your own distinct and individual approach to seeing. I know I have trouble recognizing faces, so I put a lot more analytic effort into identifying people than would someone who “never forgets a face.” I know I’m not a natural at paleography, so I try to work out ways of compensating for my weaknesses. Overall appearance counts for something; but remember to look at a, g, s, r (both after a round letter and at the end of a word). Remember that you are easily fooled by a change in size, as at the beginning of a new stint: look again at the shapes.

Maybe this is why I enjoy (a weird, perverse and often frustrating sort of enjoyment) puzzling over English Secretary hands. Gothic book scripts are a bit like that line-up of beautiful young actresses who all have big eyes, small noses, kissable mouths. Lovely, all of them. If you look closely, there are small differences, but will you recognize A when she goes blonde, or B when she becomes a redhead? Secretary hands are like those non-standard faces where the eyes are too far apart, the nose too big, the front teeth crooked. Hello! You, I know. You’re the Secretary with the flowing T, and you’re the more upright one with the special jiggle on the h. I have no idea if either of you is responsible for the Latin comment, but at least I can tell you apart when you’re not wearing your glasses.

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3 thoughts on “Ways of seeing

  1. Wonderful post. I particularly like your advice about the need to learn how, as individuals, we see. That's something we probably take for granted until it's tested. (I had a friend who lost her sight in a car accident when she was in her early 20s. It was amazing watching her learn to 'see' again in other, and often unexpected, ways.)As a neophyte at paleography, what can I expect from being able to recognise faces but never remember names?

  2. Bavardess, I don't know how this works for anyone else. The analogy is not perfect. People are, mostly, very good at faces, but far fewer seem to be naturally good at paleography. We recognize each other, not signs. But if my experience can be inverted, you might have to work at articulating the details of what you recognize; you might know what you're seeing, but not why it is what it is.

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