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Making sense of old handwriting

Numbers, Calendars, & Currency

Numbers, dates, and currency terms are complicated in early modern English-language manuscripts. The complexity arose from the fact that England, and areas it influenced or controlled, did not begin as a centralized state. Instead, as it developed, it incorporated systems from other cultures and regions. Things like numbers, calendars, and currency were influenced by Roman law, Anglo-Saxon practices, Norman French conventions, and the impact of a centralizing bureaucratic nation and empire. Familiarity with these complexities will reduce panic when you discover something that looks like “viijber” in a document.

Explaining viijber touches on the different ways numbers and calendars were labeled in the early modern period. “Viiijber” just means “October” but in a way that appears needlessly complex to a modern reader. “Viijber” contains roman numerals for 8 (viij) and –ber , the ending used in the names of the last four months of the year (September- December). The names for those months are based on the Latin words for 7 (septem), 8 (octo), 9 (novem), and 10 (decem). Between the 12th century and 1752 the legal calendar began on 25 March (Annunciation Day). Therefore, October really was the eighth month for the bulk of the early modern period. Hence, using “viijber” incorporated Roman numerals with months named for Latin numbers and with a calendar system that begin in March instead of January.


Most numbers are likely to be written in Roman numerals, but with three interesting differences from the modern approach:

  1. They will be written in lowercase rather than uppercase letters.
  2. A single 1 or the last 1 in a series will resemble our modern j.
  3. Four (4) and nine (9) are more likely to use four ones rather than the single 1 of today.
​Modern Ap​peara​nce
​Secretary Alphabet​
​I ​i or j
​II ​ij
​III iij​
​IV ​iii​j
​V ​v​
​VI ​vj


​VIII ​viij
​IX ​viiij
​X ​x
​Latin Number
​English Number
Unum​ ​One
​Duo ​Two
​Tribus ​Three
​Quattuor ​Four
​Quinque ​Five
​Sex ​Six
​Septem ​Seven
​Octo ​Eight
​Novem ​Nine
​Decem ​Ten
​Undecim ​Eleven
​Duodecim ​Twelve
Duodeviginti​ ​Eighteen
Undeviginti​ ​Nineteen
​Viginti ​Twenty
​Triginta ​Thirty
​Centum ​Hundred
​Mille ​​Thousand


The various ways of writing numbers influenced how dates are recorded in documents. Roman numerals, Arabic numerals, and abbreviations for Roman numbers might be combined to indicate a year. You are familiar with a version of this because at the end of most movie credits, the date of production is written in Roman numerals: MMXV for 2015 or MCMXLVI for 1946 (you can click here to learn about calculating Roman numerals). In an early modern manuscript it is a bit more complex; a date might be written “1 M v C xxxij”. This means (1) 1000, (5) 100s, and 32. So, 1532. Note that the M, for millennium and C for century might be superscripted in such a construction.

​Roman Numeral
Modern Number​
​L ​50
​C ​100
​D ​500
M 1000

Additionally, Roman numerals and names might be used to indicate months, as this chart demonstrates. Note that I and J were interchangeable until the late eighteenth century.

​​Latin Month
Modern Month​
Ianuarius​ ​January
​Februarius ​February
​Martius ​March
​Aprilis ​April
​Maius ​May
​Iunius ​June
​Iulius ​July
​Augustus ​August

Abbreviations for "ber" Months

Prior to 1752, the first month of the new year in the church calendar was March. Accordingly, January was the 11th month and February the 12th month in that system. The months ending in "ber" were not names but numbers reflecting this situation.

​Place in Old Calendar
Latin Designation​
​7th September ​vijber
​8th ​October ​viijber
​9th November ​viiijber
​10th December ​xber

Arabic Numbers

The 1 may be dotted or appear to still be an i as in i72i for 1721.


For information on English Currency during the 18th and 19th centuries, visit the Proceedings of the Old Bailey website.

For information on Scottish Currency, visit the ScotlandsPeople website.


Paleography Introduction