Palaeography – the art of reading old handwriting – is a very specialized skill that will not be any use to 99.9 percent of the population. However, if you want to explore original sources produced before c.1750 for a dissertation, genealogy or local history, it may be essential.
The problem is that the script below was a perfectly normal way to write in the seventeenth century.
Luckily, for those of you who would like to learn the basics of reading early modern documents, there are a huge number of helpful resources available, including many that are free and online. They are widely scattered, so this post is an attempt to collect them in a single place.
My one piece of advice is this: the only way to learn palaeography is through practice. There are lots of helpful tricks and techniques mentioned in the resources below, but ultimately it takes at least a few hours of slow, painful transcription before it becomes remotely straightforward.
I would love to hear additional suggestions in the comments.
- The National Archives has an excellent free online tutorial for palaeography, 1500-1800. It also has dozens of extra documents in its ‘Further Practice’ section.
- The English Faculty at Cambridge has another free online module: ‘English Handwriting 1500-1700’, which includes a 17th-century handwriting manual and help with dating particular scripts.
- The Institute for Historical Research has a free online module: ‘InScribe Palaeography Learning Materials’
- The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale has a tutorial to learn secretary hand, the most common form of handwriting in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England.
- Oxford’s Rediscovering Rycote project has a very short online tutorial, with some extra exercises.
- Simon Booth’s English Renaissance Handwriting iPod/iPhone App seems promising, though I have not tried it.
- Brigham Young University’s ‘Script Tutorial’ includes palaeography exercises in English, German, Dutch, Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
- National Records of Scotland’s Scottish Handwriting, 1500-1800 includes a one-hour basic online tutorial and much else. Useful for non-Scots material too.
- The Folger Shakespeare Library has a crowdsourced online transcription project: Shakespeare’s World. It is great fun, and also includes palaeographical guidance.
- MarineLives is a crowdsourced transcription project that provides palaeography training to its volunteers.
- Bess of Hardwick’s Letters Reading Early Modern Handwriting tutorial, with 18 examples of particular hands.
- Dianne Tillotson’s Medieval Writing
- Dave Postle’s Medieval and Early Modern Palaeography information, exercises and more. You can also download the programme to run on your computer.
- Medieval Abbreviations for deciphering Latin texts.
- The Newberry Library’s French Renaissance Palaeography project, with tutorials and more.
- French ‘Bibliographie de paléographie’ by Marc Smith.
- Marjorie Burghart et al. have created an interactive album of mediaeval palaeography.
- The Institute for Historical Research in London offers some in-person courses for reasonable fees.
- The Institute for English Studies runs the London International Palaeography Summer School which includes both standard early modern palaeography and a variety of specialist courses.
- The Warburg Institute in London offers a variety of research training and reading groups, sometimes including Latin palaeography.
- If you are a university student, there is a decent chance there is palaeography training available on campus. Ask your tutor.
- Many archives, record offices and local history groups offer palaeography training.
- Hilary Marshall, Palaeography for Family and Local Historians (2004) is an excellent handbook, packed with examples, which I found very helpful when starting out and which I still use on occasion
- B. Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages (1990)
- E. Boyle, Medieval Latin palaeography: a bibliographical introduction (1984)
- P. Brown, A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 (1990)
- P. Brown, The British Library Guide to Writing and Scripts (1998)
- N. Buat and E. van den Neste, Manuel de paléographie française (2016)
- G. Cencetti, Paleografia Latina (1978)
- P. Cherubini and A. Pratesi, Paleografia latina. L’avventura grafica del mondo occidentale (2010)
- E. Gooder, Latin for Local History, 2nd ed. (1978).
- C. Johnson and H. Jenkinson, English Court Hand, AD 1066 to 1500 (1915).
- T. Martin, The record interpreter: a collection of abbreviations, Latin words and names used in English historical manuscripts and records (2nd edn., London, 1910). Free online at archive.org
- C. Newton, Medieval Local Records: a Reading Aid (1971)
- J. Roberts, Guide to Scripts used in English Writings up to 1500 (2005)
- A. Robinson, The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs, and Pictograms (1995)
- J. Stiennon, Paléographie du Moyen Age (1973)