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Making sense of old handwriting

Handwriting History

Monk at work

While language can be an obstacle while working with foreign records, another common obstacle that genealogical researchers face are the many different styles of handwriting that appear across time.

Like how languages change and evolve over time, so too do the style and form of writing down the language changes over time. These different styles of writing down a language are called scripts. This factor is why many old documents can be challenging to read even when fluent in the document language. While reading old records, it is helpful to be able to recognize what script it is written in, as it can give clues as to where, when, and why a document was written. Furthermore, each script developed from distinct traditions and therefore has unique letter forms and conventions; thus, knowing what script a record is in can help in researching and identifying more difficult sections or abbreviations.

Catalan Handwriting

Catalan evolved into a distinct language from Vulgar Latin during the Middle Ages. Therefore, the language has a history spanning over Millennium; because of this, Catalan has had several distinct scripts across its history.

Like the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, the invasion of the Germanic Visigoths in the fifth century brought in many new ideas and practices. Most significant for paleography is the development of the Visigothic Script. This script was most widely used from the ninth to the eleventh centuries in Christian Spain, but it has influenced many writing practices in the centuries following.

The Spanish Marches c.806

In 711 AD, General Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed the Straights of Gibraltar and initiated the Muslim conquest. After conquering nearly all of the peninsula, the Muslim army advanced deep into Aquitania and France. Then in 732, Charles Martel, at the battle of Tours, was able to stop the Muslim invasion and began to push them back to the Iberian peninsula, laying the foundations of the Carolingian Empire. Furthermore, the nascent Frankish empire established a series of semi-independent, heavily militarized counties as a buffer zone known as the Marca Hispanica or the Spanish Marches, which are the origins of Modern Catalonia.

This close association with the Frankish Kingdom and then with France has greatly affected various aspects of Catalonia, including their languages and writing, and has often set them apart from the other Spanish Christian kingdoms.


Paleography Introduction