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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, as this is where most family history research will and should begin, they are equally applicable to any paleographic task.

1. Study new handwriting carefully and review the Tutorial for that language's handwriting.

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.

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 in Latin, such phrases as baptisatus est, baptizavi, filia legitima, and patrini can all help familiarize the researcher with a particular style. One can also identify, in surnames (always written in the vernacular tongue) and given names (generally written in Latin) 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 (and a relatively small number of Saint's days), as well as the numbers for the years, all of which can be compared with preceding or following entries or found in articles such as the Tridentine Calendar. You can also look up the dates on a calendar converter or a perpetual calendar.

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. Be aware of the 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. Consult the list of female and male given names available at Behind the Name under Ancient Roman, Medieval Latin, or Biblical Latin names. Also helpful are lists of saints' names like those found in a Catholic missal (Missale Romanum). 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, consult Wikipedia under saints and that language (e.g., French Saints).
  • 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. Today many place name lists and even digital copies of nineteenth-century geographical dictionaries can be found online. See the language tutorial for the vernacular language spoken for lists of such geographical resources.

Remember that many records that are kept in Latin may include the name of the place or parish in its Latin variation, which may be very different from the Italian, Spanish, French, or English versions 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 languages and dialects. Dioceses are nearly always given in the Latin name.

  • 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 locus or loci (places) that make up a parish. 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 and other online map collections can also be very helpful but often fail to recognize the historical changes in place names. Detailed topographical maps exist for all of these countries.
  • 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