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Making sense of old handwriting

Handwriting History

History of Dutch Handwriting

Monk at work

Dutch documents from the period 800 to 1800 can be divided into several categories or hands based on the handwriting style used:

The Carolinian hand, which originated in the court of Charlemagne, was used for a short time during the ninth and tenth centuries. Most documents in this hand were written in Latin. This handwriting was, in later centuries, thought to be used in Classical Latin documents and was often emulated by monastic scribes and occasionally by parish priests. 

Court hand​ ​was an elegant hand that predominated until the fourteenth century. Occasionally priests and scribes used this hand after 1400.

Secretary hand and its derivative Chained Secretary hand dominated after 1400 due to the speed with which it could be written; however, this also accounts for how difficult it is to read.

Italic hand began to spread throughout Europe from Italy in the early fourteenth century as Humanist doctrine spread. Between 1500 and 1650, this more readable hand replaced the secretary hand and dominated until modern cursive handwriting came into the picture after 1800. 

Scroll down to see examples of these handwriting styles.

In reading an old document written in any language, the first attitude to develop is one of "alles is mogelijk!" Yes, you can read these documents. This study will emphasize the fact that, with practice, anyone can learn to read any documents written in Dutch after 1640 and from any Dutch-speaking country. Likewise, reading parish records from 1500 to 1640 can be learned, and, with patience and practice, longer narrative documents such as wills can be mastered.

Looking at the sample of Italic  writing in Figure 1 should reassure you that reading Dutch documents in the Italic handwriting style, especially those that are of a shorter format that regularly repeats (such as parish sacramental records), can be mastered by anyone with practice. For those with a little Dutch experience, the ability to extract data from longer documents and documents with a short repetitive format can be mastered with patience and study.




Carolingian Miniscule




Secretary Hand
Secretary Hand (image extracted from Ohio State University Library)

  • Image: Anonymous, The Scribe at Work, 1910, in Edmund G. Gress, The Art & Practice of Typography (New York: Oswald Publishing Company, 1910), frontispiece, Digital Image, Internet Archive ( : accessed 20 July 2023). This image is in the public domain.

Paleography Introduction