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Making sense of old handwriting

Introduction to English Paleography

Between 1500 and 1800 Britain and Ireland used a variety of scripts--often mixing forms from an older script with newer innovations. While much material written after 1750 is decipherable without specialized training, some older, difficult, forms of writing persisted in particular record types until the 1850s. The dominant script from the early modern period (1500-1700) in England, Wales, Ireland, and colonial America was the secretary hand. Secretary hand was also used in Scotland, though Scots writers developed a few unique letterforms and strokes not found in other places within Britain. This tutorial concentrates on secretary hand, but begins with more modern hands to provide paleographic practice; it also introduces older scripts used between the middle ages and the sixteenth century.

While English is the dominant language in all early modern British, Irish, and American sources, certain documents might be in other languages, or contain portions in other languages. Latin was the official ecclesiastical-legal language in England until 1733 and Latin phrases lingered in British and Irish Documents until the eighteenth century. Scottish documents might also contain words or phrases in Scots. Documents from the Celtic areas (Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man) might have Gaelic words or Gaelic-based phonetic spellings and documents from the Channel Islands will contain French.

This tutorial is designed to introduce you to the various hands used between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries in much of the English-speaking world. It also provides you with tools to interpret manuscripts from that period. Manuscripts are made up of more than just letters and pen strokes. They contain a host of details that made sense to early modern readers, but which often appear opaque to today's readers. For example, different countries adopted different numbering systems or calendars at different times. Additionally, manuscript sources reflect the concerns of their partiuclar historical moment and often contain references no longer common knowledge. What follows sketches the reasons behind the production of particular manuscript types and provides clues for deciphering the contents.


Paleography Introduction