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Making sense of old handwriting

Numbers and Calendars


In Latin records, numbers are written in a variety of ways. Scribes may write out the date numerically or express it in Arabic numbers or Roman numerals. Because Arabic numbers are still used today, they can be fairly easy to read. Similarly shaped numbers such as 1 and 7 or 5 and 9 may still be confused, but a close reading of the document will usually result in the correct understanding of which number has been written.

Many times, scribes will choose to write out a number in Latin. When expressing a quantity, scribes would write out the cardinal form of a number. However, when numbers functioned as descriptive ordinals in a sentence, they were declined differently depending on how they were used in the sentence. When expressing a date, numbers are most commonly expressed as ordinal numbers in the ablative case.

The following table shows the Cardinal, Nominative Ordinal, and Ablative Ordinal spellings of numbers in Latin.

ArabicLatinArabicLatin Nominative CaseLatin Ablative Case
1unus, una, unum1stprimus, prima, primumprimo
2duo, duae, duo2ndsecundussecundo
​3​tres, tria3rd​tertius​tertio
​13​tredecim​13th​tertius decimus​tertio decimo
​14​quattuordecim​14th​quartus deimus​quarto decimo
​15​quindecim​15th​quintus decimus​quinto decimo
​16​sedecim​16th​sextus decimus​sexto decimo
​17​septendecim​17th​septimus decimus​septimo decimo
​21​​viginti unus
unus et viginti
​21st​vicesimus primus
unus et vicesimus
​vicesimo primo​
​22​viginti duo
duo et viginti
​22nd​vicesimus secundus
secundus/alter et vicesimus
​vicesimo secundo
​23​viginti tres
& etc.
​23rd​vicesimus tertius
​vicesimo tertio
​24​viginti quattour​24th​vicesimus quartus​vicesimo quarto
​25​viginti quinque​25th​vicesimus quintus​vicesimo quinto
​& etc.​& etc.​& etc.​& etc.​& etc.
​101​centum et unus​101st​centestimus primus​centesimo primo
​151​centum quinquaginta unus​151st​centesimus quinquagesimus primus​centesimo quinquagesimo primo
​200​ducenti, ducentae, ducenta​200th​ducentesimus​ducentesimo
​1551​mille quingenti quinquaginta unus​1551st​millesimus quingentesimus quinquagesimus primo​millesimo quingentesimo quinquagesimo primo

Roman numerals were also written similarly to how they appear today. This numeric system has been in use for much of Western Civilization; even with the introduction of Arabic numerals, there was a lot of resistance, especially from merchants, as it was viewed that roman numerals were harder to manipulate or fudge. To this day, this system is still used as a symbol of classical wisdom and tradition.

Roman numerals assign values to different letters and then use a combination of letters to create different numerical values. During the Middle Ages, there were new symbols introduced at different times and places; however, the basic, classic values are as follows:


Other values can be made depending on their relation to
each other. For example, to make the number 4, one would take the letter 'V' for 5 and put a 'I' before it, making 'IV.' This can be read as "one less than five" or simply "four." Similarly, to make larger numbers such as 7, one adds two 'I's' after the letter 'V' to make 'VII.' This can be read as "two more than five" or just "seven."

Therefore, larger numbers can become quite long. For example:

MCMXCVI > M - CM - XC - VI > 1,000 + 900 + 90 + 6 = 1996
MDCCLXXVI > M - DCC - LXX - VI > 1,000 + 700 + 70 + 6 = 1776
MMXXII > MM - XX - II > 2,000 + 20 + 2 = 2022

Small variations do occur, especially when scribes used lower case letters to represent the numerals, as shown in the chart of roman numerals below.

Some of the older documents you look at may use the following symbol:


This "U" like character signifies the space between the thousands place and the hundreds place.

For example:


or "1 U DXCI" would be 1591. Before the "U," the scribe may place a "1" instead of an "M" (such as with our 1591 example.)

Scribes frequently abbreviated common numeric expressions, such as writing millo or mmo instead of millesimo, when recording a date. When faced with what appears to be an abbreviated date, it can be helpful to look at previous entries to see if the scribe wrote out the full word at the beginning of a page and to check a number list for the full spelling of the name. It may also be useful to consult a dictionary of Latin abbreviations. The most comprehensive is Lexicon Abbreviaturarum by Adriano Cappelli, available online for free at


When recording dates in Latin documents, it is important to be aware of the customs of the area where the record is being kept. Latin was a universal language. Calendars varied between countries, with scribes following the Julian, Georgian, or Regnal calendars, depending on the time period and location. Even when the date follows the typical form of day, month, or year, it may be difficult to interpret which month is listed. Scribes frequently abbreviated months or substituted the stem of the noun for a Roman numeral or Arabic number equivalent.

From 45 BC until the late 1500s, most of the Western world followed the Julian calendar. The Julian calendar had a year of 365 days, divided into twelve months. However, the treatment of leap years caused the calendar to shift forward about three days every four centuries, resulting in its replacement by the Georgian calendar in 1582. During the transition, many scribes recorded the date in both the Julian and Georgian form: the exact year and (often) month, but with a thirteen-day discrepancy. Other scribes quickly adopted the new system, causing a seemingly unexpected thirteen-day gap in their records. Prior to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, the first month of the year was March 25. Accordingly, September was the seventh month and appears as Septembris, 7bris, or vijbris. The last three months of the year were Octobris, 8bris, or viijbris; Novembris, 9bris, ixbris or viiijbris; and Decembris, 10bris, or Xbris.  (Note that i and j were interchangeable until the late 1700s.)

At other times, scribes would judge dates based on the regnal years of their nation's monarch or base it on major holidays of the Catholic Church. Many online directories list the regnal years of the monarchs of various countries, as well as the modern dates of major holidays throughout time. Such resources can be very helpful in interpreting the written date.

Additionally, Latin months declined like all other nouns, resulting in various noun endings. In documents, months usually appeared in the genitive form, preceded by "mensis," or "of the month...." The nominative and genitive forms are both shown in the following table.

Nominative CaseGenitive Case - WrittenGenitive Case - Roman NumeralGenitive Case - Arabic Number
JanuaryJanuariusJanuarii / Januarijxirii11ij
FebruaryFebruariusFebruarii / Februarijxijrii12ij
MarchMartiusMartii / MartijN/AN/A
May​Maius​Maii, Maij​N/AN/A
June​JuniusJunii, Junij​N/A​​N/A
July​Julius​​Julii​, JulijN/A​N/A
August​Augustus​Augusti, Augustij​vjbris​6bris

Days of the week are often declined in Latin. Like months, they usually appear in the genitive case, following the word "dies" (translated: "the day of ___"). The following table includes the nominative, genitive, and ablative forms of each day of the week.

Nominative CaseGenitive CaseAblative Case
Sunday (day of the Lord [Christian calendar], day of the sun, first day of the week)(dies) Dominicus/Dominica
(dies) Solis
feria prima
(dies) Dominici/Dominicae
(dies) Solis
feriae primae
(die) Dominico/Dominica
(die) Solis
feria prima
Monday (day of the moon, second day of the week)dies Lunae
feria secunda
dies Lunae
feriae secundae
die Lunae
feria secunda
Tuesday (day of Mars, third day of the week)dies Martis
feria tertia
dies Martis
feriae tertiae
die Martis
feria tertia
Wednesday (day of Mercury, fourth day of the week)dies Mercurii
feria quarta
dies Mercurii
feriae quartae
die Mercurii
feria quarta
Thursday (day of Jove/Jupiter, fifth day of the week)dies Jovis
feria quinta
dies Jovis
feriae quintae
die Jovis
feria quinta
Friday (day of Venus, sixth day of the week)dies Veneris
feria sexta
dies Veneris
feriae sextae
die Veneris
feria sexta
Saturday (day of Saturn, seventh day of the week, the Sabbath [Jewish Calendar])dies Saturni
feria septima
dies sabbatinus/sabbatina
dies Saturni
feriae septimae
dies sabbatini/sabbatinae
die Saturni
feria septima
die sabbatino/sabbatina

  • Table of Roman Numerals: D. Jesús Muñoz y Rivero, Tabla de numerales, 1917, in D. Jesús Muñoz y Rivero, Manual de paleografía diplomatica española de los siglos xii al xvii: método teórico-práctico para aprender á leer los documentos españoles de los siglos xii al xvii, (Madrid: 1917); Digital image, Internet Archive ( accessed 3 April 2024), p103. This image is in the public domain.

Paleography Introduction