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Making sense of old handwriting

Handwriting History

There are four main scripts, or hands, used in English documents between 1500 and 1800. These four hands are just general terms that cover innumerable variations and combinations. The four hands are:

  • Court - in use from the late middle ages to early 1700s
  • Secretary - in use from 1400s to mid-1800s (though mostly obsolete by 1750)
  • Italic - in use from the 1500s to early 1800s century
  • Round Hand - in use since the early 1800s

Examples of the 4 Main Scripts

Court Hand

Court Hand is shorthand for a variety of hands that developed in the different legal courts of medieval England. Its angular look, letters formed mostly from single strokes, distinguishes it from the more connected scripts that followed it. This website does not offer much instruction specifically in Court Hand, but instead highlights places where Court Hand continued to influence how letters were written long after Court Hand, strictly speaking, was in wide use. Even the influence of Court Hand had disappeared by the mid-1700s.

English Court Hand

As should be clear from the above description, documents can often contain elements of two or three different scripts. Using the alphabet charts will help you identify the different elements of the various hands.

Secretary Hand

Secretary Hand was used from the late middle ages until the early eighteenth century. While Round Hand and Italic Hand are largely comprehensible to current readers, Secretary Hand, at first glance, appears archaic and almost like it isn't English at all. This website concentrates on Secretary Hand, as it is the one which dominates early modern (1500-1800) manuscripts, yet is unfamiliar to most readers.

Safe Copy.PNG

From "Learning to write the alphabet" by Heather Wolfe at
The Collation: a gathering of scholarship from the Folger Shakespeare Library

For further practice with Secretary hand, visit

Pay particular attention to the lowercase c, e, h, r, s, u/v, w, and x.

Italic Hand

Italic should not be confused with italics; Italic hand is very similar to English Round Hand, but contains some older letter forms (the long "s" that looks like an "f" to modern readers) and doesn't always include modern letter forms ("j" as a separate structure from "i"). Italic hand was the most common hand in the 18th century, but elements of it are found in English documents going back to the 16th century. Italic refers to the importation of Italian writing on English handwriting. Because it was faster - connecting the letters and strokes - it came to dominate legal and personal writings.

"Italique Hande", a page from a copy of A booke containing diuers sortes of hands... by Jehan de Beau-Chesne and John Baildon (1570), from the 1602 edition, with practice letters written on it
From "Learning to write the alphabet" by Heather Wolfe at
The Collation: a gathering of scholarship from the Folger Shakespeare Library

English Round Hand

English Round Hand is the handwriting in use today in the English-speaking world. It was consistently in use by the mid-19th century, but elements of it were often in use long before that.

English round hand script edited by Philip Hofer and engraved by George Bickham; from The Universal Penman (1743).

From "Round hand script" at


Paleography Introduction