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Making sense of old handwriting

Handwriting History

Monk at work

History of Spanish Handwriting

While language can be an obstacle while working with foreign records, another common obstacle that genealogical researchers face are the many different styles of handwriting that appear across time.

Like how languages change and evolve over time, so too do the style and form of writing down the language changes over time. These different styles of writing down a language are called scripts. This factor is why many old documents can be challenging to read even when fluent in the document language. While reading old records, it is helpful to be able to recognize what script it is written in, as it can give clues as to where, when, and why a document was written. Furthermore, each script developed from distinct traditions and, therefore, has unique letter forms and conventions; thus, knowing what script a record is in can help in researching and identifying more difficult sections or abbreviations.
Spanish documents from 800 to 1800 can be divided into several categories or scripts based on the handwriting style used:


  • The Visigothic Script. This 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 C-cedilla (c+ʒ → Ꝣ → ç). The cedilla is now widely used in writing romance languages; however, while common in older documents, modern Spanish orthography no longer uses it.
  • The Secretary Script. Also called Cortesana in Spanish, and its more challenging derivative, Procesal, 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.
  • The Italic Script. Also known in Spanish 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 Cortesana 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.

Reading Old Handwriting

In reading an old document written in any language, the first attitude to develop is one of "¡Sí, se puede!" Yes, one can read these documents! It is essential to know that, with practice, anyone can learn to read any documents written in Spanish after 1640 from anywhere in Spain or Latin America. Likewise, reading more challenging 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 Spanish 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 Spanish can learn to extract information from longer texts written in Itálica and can even master the notorious Cortesana or Procesal.

When attempting to read longer texts written with Cortesana or Procesal handwriting from before 1600, it is necessary to practice and gather experience before going into the archives, as these texts can be complicated and demanding to decipher. Therefore, this tutorial will provide other resources, such as websites and paleography books in the Bibliography. All of these resources offer insights into a wide variety of documents in several handwriting styles that can provide practice by reading and comparing with the transcriptions contained therein. Most of the books can be obtained at large universities, public libraries, or through an Inter-Library Loan.

Now, this tutorial only deals with documents written in Spanish or Castilian, as it is more commonly referred to in the Iberian Peninsula. Although three other languages are spoken in Spain: Catalan, Galego, and Euskera (Basque), the overwhelming majority of records written between the 1500s and 1800s are written in Castilian and Catalan. Furthermore, documents were frequently written in Latin from the Roman period until as late as the 1800s, and it is very common to encounter it in archives while conducting research. More information for documents written in Catalan and Latin can be found in the Catalan Tutorial and the Latin Tutorial, respectively.

And always remember ¡Sí, se puede!


Here are a couple of examples of handwriting that can be found in Spanish records.













  • 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.
  • Letters: Gjo, Visigothic Z-C cedille, 2008, Digital Image, Wikimedia Commons ( : accessed 20 July 2023). This image is in the public domain.


Paleography Introduction