Tuesday’s Tip: Primary sources and Old handwriting (palaeography)

Every serious genealogist and local historian will, at some point in their research, need to transcribe the handwriting of old documents (or to give its proper terminology ‘palaeography‘).  So here are my tips for dealing with the handwriting of people long since passed.  Most of my tips may seem to be very obvious but are still worth considering seriously.  My tips can be broken down into
– Good visual-quality;
– Put your source into context;
– Take your time transcribing;
– Tools of the trade.

Good visual-quality
Get your source in the best possible visual-quality.  As far as possible, poor-quality photocopies are a big no-no!  You already have enough to battle just with the content of the source and don’t need the extra complication of quandaries such as ‘is that a smudge or is that a word?’

For me, the best visual-quality sources are digital images so that I can zoom in and out of the text on my computer to my heart’s content.  If you are lucky, your source may already have been photographed by the Record Office.  This is the best quality but probably either too expensive or not an option for most of your sources.  Next best quality is your own digital images you have taken using your normal everyday camera.

There are many benefits for using a camera’s digital images – not least you are preserving your source for future generations because you are not constantly handling the precious originals.  For my Cambridge University Masters, on a daily basis I poured over my digital images of Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts.  However, over a two year period, I only handled the real object on three separate occasions.  If you do take digital images, take note of the Record Offices’ Terms and Conditions about the use of your photographs.

Put your source in context
Make sure you understand the context of primary source before trying to transcribe it.  Use the 6 ‘w’s to interpreting primary sources before your first attempt to transcribe the document.  This may help you understand any strange words or terminology you spot and help you put the text you are seeing into context.  For example, if I was transcribing a Tudor will, I would expect to see religious terminology as well as personal bequests to named people.  If I was transcribing seventeenth century inventories, then I would expect to see a list of household objects relevant to the seventeenth century.

In the context of your source, everything you transcribe should make sense.  For example, if I thought I spotted a modern word in my seventeenth century inventory, then this would clearly not make sense and I’d obviously made a mistake in my transcription.

If you are transcribing a source from the early-modern period, watch out for any words and terminology in Latin.  Once you’ve realised that you’ve hit Latin, sometimes it can be relatively easily to transcribe the words.  Latin in the early-modern period was often very formulaic and once you’ve cracked the formula, you should be able to translate some of your document.  A document totally in Latin is beyond me, but achievable if 90% of it is in English but with the odd Latin word thrown in for good measure.

Take your time transcribing
Don’t be frightened or intimidated by your source.  Some primary sources may look very scary and totally undecipherable but with time and perseverance ALL can be conquered!

Take your time transcribing your source.  Having your own digital images will mean that you are not under pressure to both find your source and transcribe it within limited timescales whilst you are still at the Record Office.

Sometimes you will need to come back to a source several times over before you can transcribe it with a reasonable degree of ease and accuracy.  Take your time over it and keep going!  Words that one week seem to be a complete mystery will hopefully come into focus the next session.

Tools of the trade
If a word is really difficult to decode, type what you can work out into Google’s search box.  Google will very conveniently offer you alternative ‘did you mean’ words in the results of their search.  One of their ‘Did you mean’ could be the word you’re looking for!  I ‘transcribed’ many words from Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts and from Tudor wills by typing as much as I could in Google and then letting Google give me suggestions.

Either use Google or a good dictionary on the subject you are studying to decipher some words and their meanings. For my masters I transcribed over 40 wills from the first half of the sixteenth century. I was not familiar with a great deal of the terminology so I used The Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity to help me decode some of the words.

Find a good secondary-source book with good examples of handwriting from the period you are transcribing.  Below I have listed some of the books I used for my early-modern studies.  All helped me crack that elusive word!

If your source is particularly tricky, read out loud the words you’ve managed to transcribe.   Sometimes reading the words out-loud will suddenly give you your missing words.  I had to read out many of the folios from Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts before I could decode some of the entries.  Doing this not only helped me with my transcriptions but also gave me a good sense as to how the scribes of Great Dunmow spoke 500 years ago and made me understand The dialect of Tudor Essex

Transcribing primary sources into intelligible English is extremely awarding experience.  Documents and words that originally appeared to be in some form secret impenetrable code suddenly come sharply into focus and will open up the world of the period you are studying.

Remember, unless your source really is in code or hieroglyphics, it’s not!  Everything you are reading HAS to make sense in the context of your source!

My final tip is to: Practice, Practice, Practice!

Peter Rabbit in Egyptian hieroglyphicsNow this really is in hieroglyphics!!

A small bibliography of some early-modern books useful for paleography:

  • Sidwell, K., Reading Medieval Latin (Cambridge, 1995).
  • Buck, W. S., Examples of Handwriting 1550-1650 (London, 2005).
  • Gooder, E.A. Latin for Local History: An introduction (2nd edition, 1978).
  • Stuart, D., Latin for local & family historians (Chichester, 1995).

The following online tutorials & tools are incredibly useful:

Background information on palaeography:


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You may also be interested in the following
– The craft of being a historian: Research Techniques
– The craft of being a historian: Analysing primary sources
– The craft of being a historian: Using maps for local history
– The craft of being a historian: Online resources
– The craft of being a historian: Palaeography/handwriting

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One Response to Tuesday’s Tip: Primary sources and Old handwriting (palaeography)

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