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Making sense of old handwriting

Introduction to Paleography

Paleography – the study of old or ancient handwriting – is a far-ranging field of study. This
website provides basic instruction in the techniques of paleographic transcription for modern (post-1500) western European scripts.

Semi-diplomatic Transcription Standard


In general, the site uses what is termed a semi-diplomatic transcription standard. Semi-diplomatic standard is based on a principle of reproducing the original document as closely as possible while maintaining readability for current audiences. In other words, the original spelling, lineation, and construction of documents is left in place, but, when necessary, expansions or explanations are given to make the document accessible to today’s readers. For example, this land indenture from 1638 has archaic language and abbreviations that would have been recognized by seventeenth-century scribes, but which seems incomprehensible to us. If ~ represents an abbreviation mark, the first line reads:

This Indenture made the ffourteenth day of ffebruary in the yeare of the raigne of o~r Sov~aigne Lord Charles by the grace of god of England Scottland ffraunce & Ireland King defend~r of the faith &c the thirteenthe

Semi-diplomatic transcription standard would leave the older spellings (ffourteenth, yeare, etc.) in place, but might expand the abbreviated words so that it reads:

This Indenture made the ffourteenth day of ffebruary in the yeare of the raigne of o[u]r Sov[er]aigne Lord Charles by the grace of god of England Scottland ffraunce & Ireland King defend[e]r of the faith &c the thirte​enthe

Note the use of [ ] to indicate places the transcriber inserted letters not in the original document. These brackets aren’t used to insert explanatory information or define terms (that’s what introductions and footnotes are for), they are merely a way to keep the document as close to the original as possible, yet simple to read. In addition to using square brackets, semi-diplomatic standard follows a line-by-line and letter-by-letter format. This means documents follow the spellings and lineation of the original.

Additionally, transcribers use { } to indicate places in the original that is missing or too damaged to read. The space between brackets can be left blank, or a brief explanation can be given, or an educated guess can be inserted. For example, if the paper was torn or an ink blot obscures the word, the { } brackets can indicate that as:

{torn} or {ink blot}

Similarly, if the document contains the phrase "in the parish ch-" but the rest isn't legible becuase it has been torn, using { } clarifies that situation while making the document comprehensible. The phrase would read:

"in the parish ch{urch}"

This would tell the reader what was in the original, and what was inserted based solely on the transcriber's educated guess.

General Guidelines

As the example above demonstrates, it is often the language as much as the script that makes reading old documents difficult. Most documents discussed on this site are those generated by large institutions: courts, churches, governments. Institutions develop their own particular vocabulary to accomplish their specific functions. And that vocabulary can appear almost opaque to a modern reader as the script appears indecipherable.

There are two basic techniques to help you with the archaic language. First, familiarize yourself with the specific vocabulary of that institution by reading more recent, or even published copies of the documents. For example, the language probate documents (wills and probates), in any country, can be quite technical; trying to decipher it at the same time you are learning a new script will just be frustrating. However, if you read more recent wills, you will gradually grow accustomed to the rhythm of probate, legal language before you tackle the older scripts. Second, when encountering a new document, read through the entire document first. Note the words that are easily recognizable and then use those words to help you identify the same letterforms in other, more difficult to read, words.

Organization of this Website

Each language-specific site consists of four basic subsections:

  • Introduction
  • Techniques & Tools
  • Alphabet
  • Documents

Each section then contains more detailed information applicable to particular documents or languages.