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Making sense of old handwriting

Introduction to Latin Paleography

Latin Records

Latin/Psalter World Map from Westminster Abbey - 1265

Reading old Latin records is challenging for all researchers. Because most Latin records were created before the nineteenth century, misspelled words, archaic styles of handwriting, and abbreviations are prevalent throughout the documents. Furthermore, Latin documents were used throughout Europe. This requires researchers to become familiar with the handwriting styles of each region in which they are working in order to read the Latin records.

Once a researcher can read the letters of the document, they must then familiarize themselves with Latin constructions: learning the meaning of keywords and understanding how verbs and nouns change based on their usage in the sentence. While this process is challenging, the resources provided in this tutorial will help researchers accurately read and translate a variety of Latin documents.

Types and Formats

For hundreds of years, Latin was the international language of trade and academia. It functioned as the English language does today by providing a common medium for people of various cultures and native languages to communicate across international boundaries. Because of this, many early civil records (especially court, poor law, and notarial) were written in Latin.

An international language was of great importance to the Catholic Church. As early as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, Beginning with the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century, the Church sought for ways to codify (make uniform) their holy sacraments. Beginning with the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century, the local parish priest was to create a written record of every individual who was baptized or married within his parish. Soon in each parish across the globe, priests recorded church ordinances. Latin was an obvious choice for this, as the clergy was already educated in Latin, this being necessary to read the Bible and decrees and directions from their bishops and from Rome.

Although the specific details recorded in parish registers changed over time and place, the basic formats remained the same. This tutorial will familiarize researchers with the different types of Latin records as well as how they changed over time and place. As Latin faded from public use, clergy, and civic servants began to write in their native tongues. This transition began in the mid-seventeenth century, but pieces of Latin may still emerge in later documents into the early twentieth century. Some officials recorded the date in Latin before switching to English, Italian, French, German, etc. Other times, officials were provided pre-printed Latin forms but filled in the information in their native tongue.

To learn how to approach a Latin document, review the seven suggestions in Practical Suggestions. The topics under Techniques & Tools provide the understanding necessary to read and translate Latin Documents used in historical and genealogical research. Visit Documents to view the different ways Latin was used in Church and Civil documents. In the future, the Interactive Exercises will provide opportunities to practice transcribing and translating Latin documents across a range of difficulties. As you use these resources, your ability to read and understand Latin documents will increase.

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Paleography Introduction