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Making sense of old handwriting

Introduction to Spanish Paleography


About this Tutorial

This tutorial will introduce you to basic records and documentation formats in the Spanish language. As such, the various pages herein contained will focus on the difficulties that old documents present, the resources to overcome them, and information on the different types of documents and the information they provide.

Old Spanish Records

Reading old records written in Spanish, also known as Castilian, is not the same as reading, for example, a modern newspaper written in Spanish. The average reader with an intermediate knowledge of the Spanish 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 Spanish 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 manifesting in written Spanish; for example, using "th" instead of "t," such as in "Thomas" instead of "Tomás" or "Thereza" instead of "Teresa."

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, ink blotches, and torn pages. While some of these things may cause you concern, you will find that in a very short period of time, you will be able to read old Spanish records with ease and accuracy. The following sections provide examples of some challenges a researcher may encounter in reading old Castilian while providing assistance with those particular challenges:



Latin Influence



 Types and Formats

When the records you will be reading were kept, Latin America and Spain were almost 100 percent Catholic. Of all the records mentioned on this site, Catholic records are the most important for family historians and genealogists with Hispanic 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, as individual nations adopted Civil Registration Laws, they also prescribed the form and content of those records of births, marriages, and deaths.

Although the specific requirements for keeping registers have changed from time to time, the formats of entries 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 entry and locate where that information can usually be found.

As you begin reading through records in Spanish, consult the topics that appear in the sidebar under Techniques & Tools, beginning with the Practical Suggestions. As you do this, be reassured about your ability to learn to read old Spanish records. Three things will help to make your task easier. First, some words in Spanish are very similar to English words that you already know. Second, the handwriting style in most Spanish records is basically the same style we use today. Third, the information that you have to read will be in roughly the same place in each record. To begin, go to Practical Suggestions.


Paleography Introduction