Terroir is an essential concept in old-world winemaking. Simply put, the same grape will yield different results depending on the land and wine culture it finds itself. The next-door village may grow the exact same vine, the wine will be significantly different. The territory is key. Not just the soil, but its history, and everything else which comes with it.
Old handwriting was a terroir activity. All handwriting is, but I wish to focus on old handwriting – the writing before 1500, the script found in manuscripts.
There are no two identical scripts, or hands, during the ancient and medieval period. If printing took away some of the thrill of finding out who wrote which bit in which manuscript, then looking at old texts in old hands brings the adventure back. It’s the bread and butter of a rare breed of historians known as palaeographers – people whose charm matches their fetish for a letter of the alphabet or the lonely scribe in a scriptorium.
As I was saying, because there are no two identical scripts, specimens of this period are like wine – you may expect one type to produce some results in one area (and one period), because you’ve figured out the mechanics of it or the logic behind it – but it simply doesn’t. So palaeographers cast away their charm and express their frustration with this or that text for not adding up to the wine master’s formula.
The secret of the singularity of wines and scribal hands doesn’t lie in the region, in the winemaking technique or scribal patterning – it’s in the people. It’s in the distillation (how unbecoming a word, forgive me!) of love and relationships – love for wine as well as for letters.