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What does that say?

AlphabetOne of the pleasures of reading old documents is admiring the clarity and evenness of old handwriting. Perhaps because handwriting was learned from copybooks, it had a certain style for the period and, once you have your ‘eye in’ on that style, it is plain sailing to read.

The one aspect you can rely on is that every letter will be represented. So even if there is a word – perhaps a name – that is unfamiliar, it is possible to work out what it says by identifying each individual letter using the words you can read as a guide.

1580 handwriting

1580 handwriting

Palaeography, the study of old handwriting, is a great skill to master, particularly when it comes to early documents or those written in particular hands such as in court. There are some excellent books on the subject with example alphabets and transcripts of different types of document to help. My favourite and much-thumbed copy is Hilary Marshall’s Palaeography for Family and Local Historians.

1864 handwriting

1864 handwriting

Today there is a vast array of handwriting styles ranging from illegible scrawl to beautifully composed lettering that is a pleasure to read, and future historians may wonder at the divergence from the copperplate, regular handwriting of, say, the Victorian period. As typography became more widely used in the 20th century, handwriting in formal documents gradually ceased to be used, so that modern conveyances and wills, for example, are all typed. Parish records of baptisms, marriages and burials are still recorded by hand in special books, as are civil registers of births, marriages and deaths – but for how long? In today’s digital age, there are fewer opportunities for using handwriting, and deciphering it might well become a specialist skill.

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