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Making sense of old handwriting

Introduction to Portuguese Paleography

About this Tutorial

This tutorial will introduce you to basic record formats; that is, it will focus on the specific information contained in each record and locate where that information can be found.

Old Portuguese Records

Old Map of Portugal

Reading old records written in Portuguese is not the same as reading, for example, modern news articles written in Portuguese. The average reader with an intermediate knowledge of the Portuguese language will quickly realize that in older records, scribes may have included words that do not match their modern equivalents, either because they were misspelled or because they were not Portuguese words but words of a derivative dialect or influenced by another language spoken in the area. These variations could also be the result of Latin influence when written in Portuguese; for example, using "th" instead of "t," such as in "Thomas" instead of "Tomas" or "Thereza" instead of "Tereza."

Besides having to become familiar with a different set of words, you will need to adjust to such things as old styles of handwriting, unfamiliar abbreviations, misspelled words, archaic letters, ink blotches, and torn pages. The following sections provide examples of some challenges a researcher may encounter in reading old Portuguese while providing assistance with those particular challenges:



Latin Influence 



Another helpful tip, have an alphabet chart open while transcribing or reading older records. You can see our Portuguese-language alphabet charts. While some of these things may cause you concern, you will find that you will be able to read old Portuguese records with ease and accuracy in a very short period of time.

Types and Formats

When the records you will be reading were written, the inhabitants of Portugal and her ultramarine colonies were almost entirely Catholic. Of all the records mentioned on this site, Catholic records are the most important for family historians and genealogists with Portuguese ancestry. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church required that each of its parishes keep records of the sacraments, baptisms (christenings), and marriages performed in the parish. The church also prescribed the form in which these records, or parish registers, were to be kept. During the nineteenth century, Brazil adopted Civil Registration Laws, and Portugal adopted civil registration in 1905. In Brazil, civil registration started to recognize the marriage of non-Catholic people around the middle of the nineteenth century; yet, it was in the year 1875 when it began to be implemented in large municipalities after a decree issued in 1874, particularly in the city of Rio de Janeiro. However, the civil registration laws in Brazil were only universalized in 1888. These laws prescribed the form and content of all records, such as birth, marriage, and death records.

Although the specific requirements for keeping registers have changed from time to time, the formats have stayed basically the same. This tutorial will introduce you to those basic formats; that is, it will focus on the specific information contained in each record and wherein the record that information is usually found. Those just beginning to learn to read and understand old Portuguese records should go to Techniques and Tools on the sidebar and read each of the pages there. Then go to the Civil Registers pages under Documents and begin with the page about birth records. Those with more paleographic experience can go to a specific document type under Documents for sample transcribed and translated documents with explanatory notes and commentaries about that document type and its essential components.

We recommend studying these sections thoroughly before reading old manuscripts. Doing so will help you be more confident in your ability to understand these records and minimize misinterpretations or missing the information for which you are searching.

To begin, below is a sample record from Portugal, Braga, that illustrates the types of challenges you may find while reading old manuscripts.

Script Example from Braga Portugal




Aos uinte & hum dias do mes de Mayo de i6i91On the twenty-first day of the month of May of 1619
baptizey Domingos filho de Gasbar gl͡z. deboucas2I baptized Domingos, son of Gasbar Gonçalves de boucas
& desua molher Maria goncalues foram padri-3and his wife, Maria Gonçalves. Were the god-
-nhos P.o antunez de fafe, & Maria lourenca4-parents Pedro Antunez de Fafe, and Maria Lourença
daranha & uerdade eu P.o uaz caueira cura5Daranha and of truth I, Pedro Vaz Caveira, priest
desta frga de sta Maya antiga aqui aʃsiney ---6of this parish of Santa Maia Antiga do sign here ---
P.o uaz Caueira7Pedro Vaz Caveira

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Paleography Introduction