The following seven guidelines offer general, practical suggestions about how to work with an unfamiliar handwriting style. While the examples given for each were chosen for the beginning researcher who is working with parish records, as this is where most family history research will and should begin, they are equally applicable to any paleographic task.
It is important to work carefully and slowly when beginning to read a new handwriting style, so as to develop a familiarity with the personal writing style of the priest or recorder, and the type of writing he is using. Also, notice any particular idiosyncrasies such as unique forms of particular letters, the use of certain abbreviations, or peculiar syntactical approaches. If at first one works slowly with the handwriting, soon his reading ability and speed will both increase dramatically.
Repeated phrases, dates, and names of which you are already sure can help to familiarize you with a new handwriting style. For example, when working with baptismal records in Latin, such phrases as baptisatus est, baptizavi, filia legitima, and avi can all help familiarize the researcher with a particular style. One can also identify, in surnames and given names that have already been encountered in other records, specific letter styles used by the writer.
Dates are also a valuable source, since the number of alternatives for a date is limited to 12 months and 31 numbers, as well as the numbers for the years, all of which can be compared with preceding or following entries.
Generally, the text with which you are working can help you find the meaning of a difficult word or passage. The following three suggestions should aid you in using the surrounding text:
Remember that a great deal of variety in handwriting can be found in a single document. It is common to find various styles of the same letter within a given document, and even within the same word. Any word may also be written in different ways. Due to linguistic variations discussed in the Challenges section on this site, there can also be various spellings of the same name. Such variety in spellings is common in the same manuscript.
Frequently, one can get a general idea of what a particularly difficult letter could be by comparing it with those letters on the alphabet charts available here. However, it should be recognized that handwriting varies drastically from person to person, as well as from time period to time period, and a particular letter in a document may not be found on the alphabet charts provided.
Consult an outside source, especially where a name is involved. The following sources, or ones similar to them, can be of great assistance in deciphering a name:
Remember that many records that are kept in Latin may include the name of the place or parish in its Latin variation, which may be very different from the Italian, Spanish, French, or English version of the name. For example, San Biagio could appear spelled San Biasio, San Bilasi, San Blasi, San Blasius, San Blâs, San Vlas, San Velase, etc. in different dialects. Dioceses are nearly always given in the Latin name.
If you cannot decipher a name or word after reasonable efforts, trace or copy it down. Write down your best guess or guesses as to what the word may be, and then go on. The word, especially if it is a name, will most likely appear again. When it does, it may be much clearer the second time, or you may be better able to decipher it in the new context. If it does not appear the second time, then you can go back and look again at the word, having had more experience with less difficult words in that same individual's handwriting.
The Mexican paleographer Maria Elena Bibriesca in setting forth norms for the reading of old handwriting offers the following excellent advice:
"Read with calmness and attention to detail, avoiding anxiety or worry.
Read each specific document word by word, avoiding the trap of confiding solely
on your memory and knowledge of similar texts and phrases.
Take into account all written elements no matter how minimal they appear. Even the most
insignificant mark may have transcendental importance. You should investigate
what it means and why it was placed there.
Long and difficult texts should be read several times, until you have a complete transcription."
In short, both beginners and advanced readers of old handwriting should proceed calmly and slowly, reading and reviewing the document thoroughly and usually several times. Remember that a complete transcription takes time and patience, with both the document and oneself.
Beyond these suggestions and the following sections about language and certain handwriting problem areas, practical experience is what is needed most to be able to understand early handwriting styles. In the book English Court Hand, A.D.1066 to 1500 the authors offered the following advice:
"The beginner will be well advised to attempt at first only documents of which he can without difficulty obtain a correct version to compare with his own. This will be of more service than anything else in helping him to measure the extent and the limitations of his knowledge. He will find that, although reading letter by letter, as he has been taught, has its uses, the trained reader relies far more on knowledge of the nature of the document that he transcribes than on his paleographical attainments... The first essential, then, is a reasonable familiarity with the language of the document. [A second] essential preliminary to correct interpretation is very often a knowledge of the administrative processes of which any particular record formed a part. If you cannot decipher a name or word after reasonable efforts, trace or copy it down. Write down your best guess or guesses as to what the word may be, and then go on. The word, especially if it is a name, will most likely appear again. When it does, it may be much clearer the second time, or you may be better able to decipher it in the new context. If it does not appear the second time, then you can go back and look again at the word, having had more experience with less difficult words in that same individual's handwriting."