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Achieving Fluency in Reading Archaic English Documents

With anticipation, you begin to read the 17th century English will of one of your ancestors--or do you?


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With anticipation, you begin to read the 17th century English will of one of your ancestors--or do you? This old document contains priceless ancestral information, but at first glance, appears impossible to read. Genealogists remember first encounters with these "chicken scratch" scripts and the feelings of frustration involved in vain attempts to interpret them. Experts know that acquiring fluency in reading archaic English documents requires sufficient instruction, study, and practice. Proper instruction includes learning how to decipher old handwriting, understand antiquated terminology, and how to correctly extend abbreviations.

Over the centuries, the English have used several different handwriting styles. Scribes composed legal documents chiefly in what is termed secretary hand from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Secretary hand merged with italic hand, which originated in Italy. By the end of the 17th century, the offspring of this handwriting marriage called mixed hand (a.k.a. round hand) developed. Mixed and italic hands are the handwriting styles currently used in Great Britain, America, and Western Europe.1 1 2 3

To learn secretary hand requires familiarization with characters that differ from the handwriting we use in our modern-day alphabet; nevertheless, the alphabet is basically the same.

• Modernizations of the archaic hand: "æ"="e", "y"="th," "ii"="y"

• Difficult to distinguish characters: "u," "v," and "n;" "c" and "r;" "s" and "f"

• Interchangeable letters: "i" and "j," "u" and "v"

• Peculiar ligatures (two letters written as one character): "th," "ph," "st"

• Letters written differently from the current style:

o "e" has the appearance of a modern "e" written backwards

o "r" looks like an upside-down cursive lower-case "r"

o "h" is difficult to describe without a visual representation

o "s" resembles a cursive "f."

These are just a few examples of the many characters that have changed over time. Additionally, many capital letters share little resemblance with their modern counterparts. For example, people wrote an upper-case "F" as "ff." Since each scribe wrote differently, researchers must learn the nuances of each of the clerk's unique characters. Practice writing an alphabet as the scribe wrote and obstacles will vanish.

Dr. Dave Postles of the University of Leicester has developed an excellent free online tutorial course to learn how to read secretary hand. It is used in the university's English Local History master's program. The website, Early Modern Paleography, is available at: Click on the coin from Henry VIII's reign to enter the English paleography course. If you're feeling particularly daring, click on the coin from Edward I's reign, to the left, to enter the Latin paleography tutorial. The English paleography website contains just about everything a researcher needs to know in order to read this old handwriting.

Just as the English used by Shakespeare and in the King James Version of the Bible varies from modern English, documents written during that era contain archaic terminology. The eager genealogist will encounter pillow bears, baxspittles, fitches, and wisketts in 16th and 17th century manuscripts. In addition to new words, researchers become acquainted with 20 variant ways to spell one word, as contemporaneous scribes did not use fixed spellings. Significant aids for understanding the vocabulary and spelling variations used in these documents include: the Oxford English Dictionary, and Barbara J. Evans' A to Zax. The 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary is available at most large libraries. It is also accessible online by subscription or for purchase on CD-ROM for $295.00, see

One of the most complex problems arises from the medieval form of shorthand clerks continued to use during this time. During the middle ages, in the attempt to conserve expensive ink, writing utensils, and parchment, scribes abbreviated large portions of the text. Although they did not use this system as intensely during the era in which we are interested as in the centuries preceding it, genealogists must become acquainted with the common abbreviations. The British pound symbol "£" is actually an example of one type of abbreviation. The horizontal line crossing the capital "L" signifies that the scribe chopped off the remainder of the word, "Libra," the Latin term for pound. Other common abbreviations include:

• a swerving line above the word often denoting a missing "m" or "n"

• superscript letters written above the writing line, as in the modern-day 1st

• "s" for solidos (shilling in English), and "d" for denarius (pence in English), both used in the British monetary system. Roman numerals also appear frequently as numerical values.

Anyone can learn to read 16th and 17th century English handwriting. Although in many ways the language and handwriting differ drastically from modern-day English, these obstacles can be overcome, and hidden ancestors found.

1 Oxford English Dictionary. Online Edition, "secretary" and "italic." Internet, available by subscription at: Accessed: March 23, 2004.

2 Dave Postles, "The Development of Hands," Early Modern Palaeography, Internet, available at: Accessed: March 23, 2004.

3 Leonard Charles Hector, The Handwriting of English Documents. Dorking: Kohler and Coombes, 1980.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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