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Making sense of old handwriting

Handwriting History

Monk at work

History of French Handwriting

French documents from the period 1500 to 1800 can be divided into two categories based on the handwriting style used:

Documents in Secretary style called in French, Courtisane, and its more challenging derivative, Procédural, were used from 1500 to 1640.

Documents in the Humanistic style, known in French as Itálica, were used from 1550 to 1800.

Si! On Peut!

 When reading an old document written in any language, the first attitude to develop is one of "Si! On peut!" Yes, it is possible to read these documents. This study will emphasize that with practice, anyone can learn to read documents written in French after 1640 from anywhere in France or in French-speaking countries. 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.

The sample of Itálica writing in Figure 1 should reassure you that reading French documents in the Itálica handwriting style, especially those that are of a short format (which regularly repeats), such as parish sacramental records, can be mastered. For those with a little fluency in French, the ability to extract data from longer documents in Itálica, Courtisane, or Procédural is possible through study and understanding of French handwriting format.

If, when learning to read longer texts or Procédural handwriting from before 1600, one needs more practice before going into the archives, use the website references to the books on paleography at the end of this chapter. All of these offer a wide variety of documents in several handwriting styles that can provide practice for comparing the record to transcriptions contained therein. Most of these books can be obtained at large universities and public libraries or through an Inter-Library Loan. Also, this study only deals with documents written in French, even though it is possible to find records in Catalan or Euskera (Basque) in some areas of France.



1550 to 1800



1500 to 1640



1500 to 1640


  • 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