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Making sense of old handwriting

Introduction to Dutch Paleography


Old Dutch Records


Reading old records written in Dutch is not the same as reading, for example, a modern  newspaper written in Dutch. Besides having to become familiar with a different set of words, you will need to adjust to such things as old styles of handwriting, unfamiliar abbreviations, misspelled words, ink blotches, and torn pages. While some of these things may cause you concern, you will find that in a very short period of time, you will be able to read old Dutch  records with ease and accuracy.

This tutorial will introduce you to basic record formats; that is, it will focus on the specific information contained in each record and locate where that information can be found.


Types and Formats

The Netherlands has some of the best-kept records in the world, many of which are digitized and online at,, and several Dutch provincial archive websites. These records are generally in good condition. Civil Registration began no later than 1811. Church records can go back as far as the mid-1500s. There are records from several religions in the Netherlands and northern Belgium. Those of Protestant denominations were usually written in Dutch (or Flemish), in formats paralleling their English counterparts. Others in the southern Netherlands and Belgium were also written in French. Catholics maintained records in Latin.

As you begin reading through records in Dutch, consult the topics that appear in the sidebar beginning with the Dutch Handwriting and then the Practical Suggestions. As you do this be reassured about your ability to  learn to read old Dutch records. Three things will help  make your task easier.

  1. Some words in Dutch  are very similar to English words that you already know.
  2. The handwriting style in most Dutch records back to 1811 is basically the same style we use today. Before then the style is known as humanistic in which we see many records and old published books in English.
  3. The information you have to read will be in roughly the same place in each record, helping you know where to look and what to expect.


Paleography Introduction