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Shropshire Archives reopens in a phased way from Wednesday 29 July

Research tips – old handwriting

April 22, 202010:06 amLeave a Comment

If you have got back to the early 16th or 17th century in parish registers or other documents, you might find the unusual handwriting and letter forms known as ‘secretary hand’.

Archivist Helen Haynes has often run courses on Palaeography – reading old handwriting – at Shropshire Archives. Here she gives her top ten tips:

  1. Spelling is erratic and can vary even in the same document. It can help to say the words out loud and use the context to guess appropriate words.
  2. Capitals can be used throughout sentences
  3. The word ‘the’ can appear as ‘Ye’.  The ‘Y’ is actually a thorn – a symbol that looks like our modern ‘y’ and is used to abbreviate personal pronouns and other words. You can sometimes find ‘the’ and ‘ye’ interchangeably in the same document.
  4. ‘Off’ is often used for ‘of’. ‘U’ can be used where we would use ‘v’. ‘I’ and ‘j’ can be mixed up and ‘i’ and ‘y’ can also be interchanged.
  5. If you can guess one letter form, use that to help you with unfamiliar words elsewhere in the document. Often the most difficult texts are the shortest because there are fewer words to compare letter forms.
  6. Some texts can be easier due to familiarity with the context and the use of words which are still in modern usage. 
  7. Some writers were better educated than others – some may be the best educated person in their village or simply it was their turn to hold some local public office such as churchwarden.
  8. Quality and clarity of ink used can make a big difference – some mixes of ink show up better against the parchment or paper. Some texts have better spacing so there is less confusion between the strokes in different sentences. You may find it useful to number the lines (on a copy) so you can keep your place.
  9. Documents with a lot of personal names e.g. parish registers can be hard to read – first names are usually straightforward as there was only a small stock of first names but there are few clues for guessing obscure surnames. Knowledge of the area and of the common names in that locality can be useful.
  10. Abbreviations are used a lot – which will be the topic of another post.
From the Ludford parish register, 1664 ref P175/A/1/1

If you want something to try during isolation, then why not have a go at the online tutorial on the The National Archives website. This has plenty of more tips and examples, as well as documents of varying degrees of difficulty for you to practice on: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/default.htm

Written by sarahd

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