Reading old Latin records is challenging to all researchers. Because most Latin records were created before the nineteenth century, misspelt words, archaic styles of handwriting, and abbreviations are prevalent throughout the documents. Furthermore, Latin documents were used throughout Europe. This requires researches to become familiar with the handwriting styles of each region in which they are working in order to read the Latin records.
Once a researcher can read the letters of the document, they must then familiarize themselves with Latin constructions: learning the meaning of key words and understanding how verbs and nouns change based on their usage in the sentence. While this process is challenging, the resources provided in this tutorial will help researchers accurately read and translate a variety of Latin documents.
For hundreds of years, Latin was the international language of trade and academia. It functioned as the English language does today by providing a common medium for people of various cultures and native languages to communicate across international boundaries. Because of this, many early civil records (especially court, poor law, and notarial) were written in Latin.
An international language was of great importance to the Catholic Church. Beginning with the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century, the Church sought for ways to codify (make uniform) their holy sacraments. This included creating a written record of every individual who was baptized, married, or buried within each parish across the globe. Clergy were already educated in Latin; it was necessary to read the holy works of the time. Therefore, Latin was an obvious choice for recording church ordinances.
Although the specific details recorded in parish registers changed over time, the basic formats remained the same. This tutorial will familiarize researchers with the different types of Latin records as well as how they changed over time. As Latin faded from public use, clergy and civic servants began to write in their native tongues. This transition usually occurred in the mid-seventeenth century, but pieces of Latin may still emerge in later documents. Some officials recorded the date in Latin before switching to English, Italian, French, German, etc. Other times, officials were provided pre-printed Latin forms, but filled in the information in their native tongue.
To learn how to approach a Latin document, review the seven suggestions in Reading The Handwriting. The topics under Techniques & Tools provide the understanding necessary to read and translate Latin Documents used in historic and genealogical research. Visit Documents to view the different ways Latin was used in Church and Civil documents. In the future, the Interactive Exercises will provide opportunities to practice transcribing and translating Latin documents across a range of difficulties. As you use these resources, your ability to read and understand Latin documents will increase.
The map, Liber Secretorum Fidelium Cricis was created by Marino Sanudo in 1321, and is in the public domain. Further images from his collection can be found in the British Library's online map collection at www.bl.uk.