Skip to main content
Making sense of old handwriting

History of Portuguese Handwriting

Monk at work

Portuguese documents from the period 800 to 1800 can be divided into several categories or 'scripts' based on the handwriting style used:

The Visigothic Script originated from the Germanic Visigoths that ruled the
Iberian Peninsula from the 5th to the 8th centuries. The script was used from around the 600s to the 1300s, reaching its apogee around the 9th to 11th centuries. This script was primarily used to write Latin, which was the main language of the church and formal documents; however, the Visigothic Script did develop the 'Visigothic Zet,' which is a ligature of c & z and has become the modern Cedilla.

The Secretary Script, called Cortesão in Portuguese, and its more challenging derivative, Processual, dominated from 1400 to 1640 due to the speed with which it could be written; however, this also accounts for how difficult it is to read.

Italic hand: also known in Portuguese as Itálica or Humanística, began to spread throughout Europe from Italy in the early fourteenth century during the Renaissance, which took its inspiration from the older Latin scripts, rejecting courtly scripts like Cortesão for being too 'gothic' and therefore too unenlightened. Between 1500 and 1650, this more readable hand replaced the Secretary hand and has dominated until the modern day.

In reading an old document written in any language, the first attitude to develop is one of "você consegue!" Yes, you can read these documents! This study will emphasize the fact that, with practice, anyone can learn to read any documents written in Portuguese after 1640 from anywhere in Brazil or any Portuguese-speaking country. Likewise, reading parish records from 1500 to 1640 can be learned, and, with patience and practice, longer narrative documents such as wills can be mastered.

Looking at the sample of Itálica writing below should reassure the reader that reading Portuguese documents in this handwriting style can be quickly mastered by anyone with practice - especially documents with short, repetitive entries like parish records. With patience and study, even those with little fluency in Portuguese can learn to extract information from longer texts written in Itálica and can even master the notorious Cortesão or Processual.

And always remember, Sim, você consegue!










  • Image: Anonymous, The Scribe at Work, 1910, in Edmund G. Gress, The Art & Practice of Typography (New York: Oswald Publishing Company, 1910), frontispiece, Digital Image, Internet Archive ( : accessed 20 July 2023). This image is in the public domain.

Paleography Introduction