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Making sense of old handwriting

Practical Suggestions

The following seven guidelines offer general, practical suggestions about how to work with an unfamiliar handwriting style. While the examples given for each were chosen for the beginning researcher who is working with parish records because this is where most Italian family history research will and should begin; however, they are equally applicable to any paleographic task.

1. Study New Handwriting Carefully

It is important to work carefully and slowly when beginning to read a new handwriting style so as to develop a familiarity with the personal writing style of the priest or recorder and the type of writing he is using. Also, notice any particular idiosyncrasies, such as unique forms of particular letters, the use of certain abbreviations, or peculiar syntactical approaches. If at first one works slowly with the handwriting, soon his reading ability and speed will both increase dramatically.

Dates are also a valuable source since the number of alternatives for a date is limited to 12 months and 31 numbers, as well as the numbers for the years, all of which can be compared with preceding or following entries.

2. Begin with Those Portions of the Record that are Familiar

Repeated phrases, dates, and names of which you are already sure can help to familiarize you with a new handwriting style. For example, when working with baptismal records written in Italian, such phrases as fu battezzato, da me, prete, figlio legittimo di, and fu sepolto nel cimitero can all help familiarize the researcher with a particular style. One can also identify, in surnames and given names that have already been encountered in other records, specific letter styles used by the writer.

Dates are also a valuable source since the number of alternatives for a date is limited to 12 months and 31 numbers, as well as the numbers for the years, all of which can be compared with preceding or following entries.

3. Use the Surrounding Text as a Guide

Generally, the text with which you are working can help you find the meaning of a difficult word or passage. The following three suggestions should aid you in using the surrounding text:

  • Compare the letters in unknown words or names with those of known words or names. In this way, you can make good use of the familiar dates, phrases, and known names discussed above.
  • Read the word in the context in which it was written. This can be especially helpful where the records are written in complete sentences or where you are already familiar with the basic concept that is being developed.
  • Look for the same word or name elsewhere. This can be especially helpful where there are marginal notes or where the same surname is repeated several times in a single document. The name written in the other place may not be abbreviated or may be more clearly written or in many cases, the writer may have chosen completely different letter styles the second time he wrote the name.

4. Variety of Handwriting Found in Records

Remember that a great deal of variety in handwriting can be found in a single document. It is common to find various styles of the same letter within a given document and even within the same word. Any word may also be written in different ways. Due to linguistic variations discussed in the Challenges section on this site, there can also be various spellings of the same name. Such variety in spellings is common in the same manuscript.

5. Compare Unknown Letters with Those on Alphabet Charts

Frequently, one can get a general idea of what a particularly difficult letter could be by comparing it with those letters on the alphabet charts available here. However, it should be recognized that handwriting varies drastically from person to person, as well as from time period to time period, and a particular letter in a document may not be found on the alphabet charts provided.

6. Consult an Outside Source

Consult an outside source, especially where a name is involved. The following sources, or ones similar to them, can be of great assistance in deciphering a name:

  • Archives personnel, local record custodians such as priests, or other more experienced researchers. When working on-site in archives, local people, particularly priests in the parish, are familiar with the different surnames found in the area and also know the surrounding places, towns, and villages. They may also be somewhat familiar with the earlier handwriting styles. Generally, priests and archives personnel are more than willing to help in deciphering a particularly difficult name or confirming a name with which the researcher is unfamiliar. In parish archives, such questions may also serve the function of focusing the conversation on the work that you are doing.
  • Lists of given names and surnames. Consult the lists of Masculine Names, Feminine Names, and Surnames available on this site. Also helpful are lists of saints' names like those found in a Catholic missal or in Butler's Lives of the Saints. Numerous websites offer last name lists and surname distribution maps, such as:


    Cognomi Italiani

    Mappa dei Cognomi

While these are by no means all-inclusive, they may be a guide in identifying a difficult name or in finding a correct spelling. For others, perhaps more specific to a country or region, do a Google search using the word cognome and the name of the country or region.

  • Gazetteers and geographical dictionaries. These contain alphabetical lists of place names against which one can compare spellings. Many, especially those published in the last half of the nineteenth-century, can be very helpful in determining the existence of a parish listed in an old record or in confirming the spelling of a difficult place name. We recommend the use of the Annuario generale dei comuni e delle frazioni d'Italia published by the Touring Club Italiano.

Today many place name lists and even digital copies of nineteenth-century geographical dictionaries are available online on sites like Google Books, such as the Dizionario geografico, storico, statistico, by Goffredo Casalis, or the ten-volume set for the Kingdom of Naples or the Dizionario geografico-ragionato del Regno di Napoli published by Lorenzo Giustiniani.

Place names have also changed as a result of shortening or combining two words into one. For example, the city of Florence, known today in Italian as Firenze, was known in early records as Fiorenza. Using care and a little bit of creativity in the spelling and combining of words, one can usually determine the town or parish that is being named. Naturally, final confirmation can only be had by checking the parish records for that particular parish.

It is also important to remember that many records that are kept in Latin will include the name of the place in its Latin variation, which may be very different from the Italian version of the name. For example, San Biagio could appear spelled San Biasio, San Bilasi, San Blasi, San Blasius, San Blâs, San Vlas, San Velase, etc. in different dialects.

  • Maps. Generally, most of an ancestral family within a single generation or two, and often for ten or more, will come from a relatively limited geographical area. A detailed map of that area, even one from a national atlas, will be very useful in identifying those frazioni or quartieri (small places) that make up a comune. A map can supplement gazetteers and geographical dictionaries by allowing you to see the physical relationship between the parish or locality in which you are currently working and that of the newly encountered parish, town, or locality. Google Maps, Via Michelin, and other online map collections can also be very helpful but often fail to recognize the historical changes in place names.
  • Search the internet. The existence or likely non-existence of a more unique surname or place name can be proven often with additional information by simply searching for that name using a search engine or an online encyclopedia, such as Google, Wikipedia, or others.

7. Don't Spend too Much Time on a Letter or Name.

If you cannot decipher a name or word after reasonable efforts, trace or copy it down. Write down your best guess or guesses as to what the word may be, and then go on. The word, especially if it is a name, will most likely appear again. When it does, it may be much clearer the second time, or you may be better able to decipher it in the new context. If it does not appear the second time, then you can go back and look again at the word, having had more experience with less difficult words in that same individual's handwriting.

Suggestions from the Experts

The Mexican paleographer Maria Elena Bibriesca in setting forth norms for the reading of old handwriting, offers the following excellent advice:

"Read with calmness and attention to detail, avoiding anxiety or worry. Read each specific document word by word, avoiding the trap of confiding solely on your memory and knowledge of similar texts and phrases. Take into account all written elements no matter how minimal they appear. Even the most insignificant mark may have transcendental importance. You should investigate what it means and why it was placed there. Long and difficult texts should be read several times, until you have a complete transcription."

In short, both beginners and advanced readers of old handwriting should proceed calmly and slowly, reading and reviewing the document thoroughly and usually several times. Remember that a complete transcription takes time and patience with both the document and oneself.

Beyond these suggestions and the following sections about language and certain handwriting problem areas, practical experience is what is needed most to be able to understand early handwriting styles. In the book English Court Hand, A.D.1066 to 1500, the authors offered the following advice:

"The beginner will be well advised to attempt at first only documents of which he can without difficulty obtain a correct version to compare with his own. This will be of more service than anything else in helping him to measure the extent and the limitations of his knowledge. He will find that, although reading letter by letter, as he has been taught, has its uses, the trained reader relies far more on knowledge of the nature of the document that he transcribes than on his paleographical attainments... The first essential, then, is a reasonable familiarity with the language of the document… an essential preliminary to correct interpretation is very often a knowledge of the administrative processes of which any particular record formed a part.” 1

  1. Charles Johnson and Hilary Jenkinson, English Court Hand, A.D. 1066 to 1500 : Illustrated Chiefly from the Public Records (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1915), xxxvii; digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 20 July 2023).

Paleography Introduction