Interpreting Old Documents: 10 Strategies for Reading Historical Handwriting

This post is the first in my series on "Interpreting Old Documents." Each month I will explore a different issue and share tips and resources for reading and understanding historical records.

Example of Spencerian Script. By D.L. Musselman (http://www.iampeth.com/lessons.php#spencerian) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Example of Spencerian Script. By D.L. Musselman (http://www.iampeth.com/lessons.php#spencerian) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Genealogical research is simple when everything is transcribed and indexed online but older handwritten records often remain in their less-accessible state. There is something satisfying about being the first person to transcribe and analyze an archival document.

Palaeography, the study of old handwriting, is a central focus of archival studies in France, where the Ecole Nationale des Chartes (National School of Palaeography and Archival Studies) offers a archiviste paléographe degree. Rather than focusing on content, palaeographers study the form and processes of writing. Archival diplomatics, the critical study of documents and the processes of their creation, has replaced palaeography in the curriculum of North American archival studies programs. 

Although content is the primary focus of the genealogical researcher, knowledge of a document's context of creation can be incredibly important! Whether you find a letter written by an ancestor or a passenger list that has been digitized without transcription, understanding the record within its historical context can reveal clues for future research.

As an archival studies student and a lover of all things historical, I have a special love of old handwritten documents and manuscripts. Here are my strategies for working through a particularly hard-to-read handwritten document:

  1. Make a photocopy or print out a copy that you can mark up and highlight. If available, a high resolution digital image that you can zoom into and annotate is an even better option. 
  2. Skim through the document. Don't be concerned with understanding the entire document all at once. 
  3. Write down or highlight any clues about the context and persons involved in the creation and use of the document. 
    1. Context: date and place.
    2. Persons: author, addressee, witnesses, and any other names or signatures that appear on the document. 
  4. Highlight any standard words or phrases that may give clues about the type of document, such as "Be it known" or "Whereas." (Stay tuned for tips on understanding document types, later in this series!)
  5. Begin transcribing the text exactly as it appears. Leave a space in parentheses for any words or letters that you can't quite decipher, e.g. (…). 
  6. If you supply a word, put it in square brackets, e.g. […]. This way you will know what is original to the document when you refer to your transcription in the future.
  7. If a word has an odd spelling and you can't decipher its meaning, try saying it out loud. Prior to the standardization of English in the 18th century, words were often written exactly as they sounded.[1] 
  8. At the end of a paragraph or a page, return to the words with parentheses. They may have appeared elsewhere in the document or you might be able to understand them through context.
  9. Compare the document to similar types of documents or to other known works by the same writer, if available. Other sources may be clearer. 
  10. If a letter or a word is still giving you trouble, consult one of the resources below for examples of old alphabet letters and handwriting.  

My final piece of advice isn't a strategy but it is the most important tip in this post: cite your source! Make sure your transcription includes the citation so that you and other researchers can locate the original document.

Do you have any strategies and tips of your own? Please share them in the comment section below. I'd love to hear from you!


Resources

For handwriting from the period of 1500-1800, I recommend working through the palaeography tutorial developed by The National Archives (UK). Test your skills on practice documents relating to your area of research.

Rediscovering Rycote, a Oxford University website about a demolished Tudor house in Oxfordshire, has a tutorial with a handy section on recognizing 16th century alphabet letters.

A list of palaeography resources, primarily for 17th and 18th century handwriting,  is also maintained by Diane Ducharme, an archivist at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. The list includes English-language resources for French, German, Italian and Spanish scripts.

FamilySearch also has a "Handwriting Helps" section and a handwriting wiki category with links to sources for interpreting non-English handwriting. 


Works Cited

[1] "Palaeography: Where to Start." The National Archives. Accessed July 22, 2015, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/where_to_start.htm

Sources

Rogers, Corinne. Archival Diplomatics. Course lectures, ARST 510, UBC School of Library, Archival and Information Studies, September - December, 2014. 

To cite this post (Chicago Style):

Parker, Marisa. “Interpreting Old Documents: 10 Strategies for Reading Historical Handwriting.” The Family Archivist's Notebook (blog). July 26, 2015. http://www.parkerarchivalservices.com/blog/2015/7/interpreting-old-documents-10-strategies-for-reading-historical-handwriting.