For two weeks this summer, from Monday, June 5 through Friday, June 16, I was enrolled in the German Script Course at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, PA. The Archives Committee of the Lititz Moravian Congregation provided generous support for me to take this class. This article is offered as a thank you note for the valuable experience and to share some highlights.
The Script Class was composed of fifteen students, mostly young college professors or graduate students who read, write, and speak German with ease. [Above photo of the class is used by permission from the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem.] However, each student specializes in research that requires an ability to read the “old” German script to further their research, an alphabet that fell out of use in the early- to mid-20th century.
Research interests varied greatly, from 18th-century German literature or engineering treatises, to 19th-century government forms and documents, to early 20th-century post cards, personal letters and other correspondence. All students shared a common goal: to learn how to decipher this mysterious German handwriting in order to unlock hidden treasure and discover hitherto unknown gems of historical value derived from a modern reading of the script. As the Archives Committee is aware, I sought to learn the script in order to transcribe our congregation’s early memorabilia, diaries, registers, logs, and other writings, especially those dealing with our proud tradition of music ministry, performance, and composition.
Simply put, the course presented opportunities to read and write old German script as a means to transcribe the unfamiliar symbols into modern German letters. Within the first hour of the first day of class, it was obvious that this was going to be as much a calligraphy class as a reading course! Using multi-lined paper and carefully sequenced instruction, former Assistant Archivist, Lani Yawinsky, taught us the lower case German script alphabet stroke by stroke. While many of the letters are similar to English, many are not (see table below). After reviewing the entire alphabet, we were left with a homework assignment: notate all lower case letters by memory for a quiz the next day. This would require many hours of practice.
Next, we dove right into the deep water. Head Archivist, Paul Peucker, led us through the first reading – an extract from an old Bethlehem Diary describing early Moravian life in the American colonies. With only our brief introductory writing lesson and script tables as guide, we struggled with this “cold reading” of our first text. While deciphering the letters proved challenging, unraveling the various strokes of the stylized writing of the period added another level of difficulty. We were seated in a large circle in the Archives Reading Room, and each student took a line of text in turn and attempted to read it out loud by themselves. Regardless of struggle and no matter how long it took, help from other students was not permitted – only probing questions offered by Paul to encourage the discovery of the right answer. This was somewhat nerve-wracking! Since I am not a German speaker, I found it especially difficult. Fortunately, in retrospect, I relied solely on my ability to read the symbols, with very few contextual clues that an understanding of the language would provide. Such teaching techniques were very motivating and inspired all of us to study and prepare well. What remained unread during class was then added to the homework assignment, along with new material. This first day routine became our daily cycle, a way of life.
Class was in session from 9 AM -12:30 PM Monday through Friday, with the remainder of the day (and night) devoted to handwriting practice for the daily quizzes (lower case, upper case, both cases together, spelling test in order to connect the letters, etc.) and transcribing various diary entries. Reading material became more difficult as the course continued, but we improved each day as the reading and writing of the script became second nature through such regular use. The current Assistant Archivist, Tom McCullough, took charge of the handwriting instruction for the second week. He taught us the same alphabet, but employed an authentic 18th-century Moravian Primer as his source material for instruction. We learned to make our strokes in exactly the same manner as early Moravians, which gave our writing a similar “look” to what we were reading. Through our readings, we grew to appreciate the subtleties of expression that each writer employed; the expressive content within a unique writing style conveyed their feelings through their pen strokes. We began to experience handwriting as an art. Such an understanding helped us to read otherwise indecipherable scratches, or at least be able to figure out even the most difficult passages. A major class highlight was learning how to write script using a feather quill! What fun! We gained even more respect for the the skill of early Moravians to produce such beautiful script – so clear, legible, artful – using a writing tool that can be so unpredictable and difficult to control.
Outside of class, when not hunched over my dorm desk practicing my writing or straining my eyes to read script, I enjoyed getting know my classmates and learning about their professional life, scholarly work, and recreational pursuits. With Paul Peucker as our tour guide, we also took two afternoon field trips, one to historic Bethlehem and the other to Nazareth. We also enjoyed a festive closing dinner at McCarthy’s Red Stag pub in downtown Bethlehem. This course exceeded my expectations and I recommend it highly to anyone wishing to read German script, something that not even many native Germans can do today. We are blessed that such an opportunity exists to study this topic and come away with such a useful skill. Many thanks to everyone who made this experience possible, and special kudos to the impressive work of Paul Peucker, Tom McCullough, and everyone at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem.
Exciting news!!! In a future post, I will share a story about the fascinating booklet I discovered in our own Lititz Moravian Archives and Museum: Etliche Anmerkungen unser Singen und Spielen, Melodien und Choral-Buch betreffend. [“Various Remarks Concerning Our Singing and Playing, Melodies and Choral Book”], written by J. Fr. Franke, Herrnhut, April 1763. [first page below]. Written three years after Nicolaus Zinzendorf’s death by a musician that worked closely with him, this “treatise” includes twenty-one specific points and an extended footnote that explains various facets of Moravian music and performance practice. I transcribed this innocent looking pamphlet during the Script Course and shared it with Paul Peucker, who believes this could be a “significant document.” Such words mean a lot coming from Paul! I have never read anything quite like this, with such specific detail reagarding the nature and practice of music within the early church. As of yet, no one else I have contacted has encountered this unique document. Amazing!