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Nature of Source

The study of old or ancient handwriting. An ability to read old forms of handwriting is essential when researching wills, inventories, property titles, deeds, parish registers and other documents.

The styles of writing can be divided into three periods:
Old English, 690-1100
Middle English, 1100-1500 (Court Hand, Book Hand)
Modern English, 1500-present (Including Court, Legal, Chancery and Secretary Hands)
The most common form of writing encountered is the Secretary Hand based on the Court Hand.

It can often help to know the terms and style associated with each document especially as many of the words and phrases are repeated in separate documents. For example the preamble to the main body of a will is repeated in similar terms in other wills. From these known words it is possible to construct an alphabet to assist in transcribing the more difficult unknown words. When transcribing a document always number the lines down the left-hand side and keep to the same numbering as the original. When making a transcription of a document ensure that the original abbreviations and spelling are rigorously maintained. From the transcription is advisable to produce a translation expanding out the abbreviations.

Be aware that many oft-used words were abbreviated, so a word such as 'parish' was often abbreviated contracting the 'par' to a long 'p' with the word reading as 'pish'. Also look for the thorn (þ), often written as a 'y', which is the equivalent of th and combined with a superscript e becomes the word 'the'. Sums of money in pounds, shillings and pence were abbreviated to 'l' or 'li' for pound (from the Latin 'libra'), 's' for shilling and 'p' for pence. Sums of money were also often shown by the equivalent Roman numerals. It is important to note that the final 'i' or '1' when represented in Roman numerals was written as a 'j' which was used as a measure to prevent fraud. It was also the custom in earlier documents to write the number 4 as 'iiij' and not the more recognisable 'iv'. Amounts were often written in scores of twenty so that xx over iiij would signify 4 times 20. A comprehensive guide to Weights and Measures and Money can be found here.

It is possible that a word can be transcribed correctly but the meaning remains unclear, so reference to a dictionary of archaic words will be needed. Use maps and topographical directories for help in identifying place names.

Prior to 1733 official and legal documents were written in Latin except for the period 1651 to 1650. The Latin used in such documents is known as medieval Latin as opposed to classical Latin. The essential difference is that medieval Latin followed the same sentence structure as the English language spoken at the time. Therefore the use of classical Latin grammar will not be in evidence in medieval Latin. As is the case with many old documents such as wills and parish registers the same words and phrases appear repeatedly so the vocabulary needed to transcribe a record is relatively small. However, much of writing is heavily abbreviated which can hinder the understanding of some words and phrases.

Also see
Maps & Gazetteers, including Scotland & Ireland
Surname Origins and Distribution

Where Found

Period Covered

700 - Onwards

Further References

Bristow, Joy. The Local Historian’s Glossary of Words and Terms: Countryside Books, 2001


Buck, W.S.B. Examples of Handwriting 1550-1650: Society of Genealogists, 2005


Corèdon, Christopher & Williams, Ann. A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases: D.S. Brewer, 2007


Durie, Bruce. Documents for Genealogy & Local History: The History Press, 2013


Grieve, Hilda. Examples of English Handwriting, 1150-1750: Essex Record Office, 1950


Hector, L.C. Handwriting of English Documents: Kohler and Coombes, 1980


Hoskin, Philippa & Slinn, Sara. Reading the Past: Medieval Handwriting: University of York, 2003


Hoskin, Philippa & Slinn, Sara. Reading the Past: Sixteenth And Seventeenth Century English Handwriting: University of York, 2001


Ison, Alf. A Secretary Hand ABC Book: Berkshire Family History Society, 2000


Marshall, Hilary. Palaeography for Family and Local Historians: Phillimore, 2004


Milward, Rosemary (comp). A Glossary of Household Farming & Trade Terms from 17th-century Probate Inventories: Derbyshire Record Society, 1986


Munby, Lionel. Reading Tudor and Stuart Handwriting: Phillimore, 2002


Oates, Jonathan. Tracing Your Ancestors from 1066 to 1837: Pen and Sword Books, 2012


Richardson, John. The Local Historian’s Encyclopedia: Historical Publications, 2003




Gooder, Eileen Amy. Latin for Local History, Longman, 1978


Latham, Ronald Edward. Revised Medieval Latin Word List from British and Irish Sources: Oxford University Press, 1965


Martin, Charles Trice. The record interpreter: A Collection of Abbreviations, Latin Words and Names Used in English Historical Manuscripts and Records: Phillimore, 1982 (1910) (Available to preview online at Google Books or to download at the Internet Archive)


McLaughlin, Eve. Simple Latin for Family Historians: Varneys Press, 1994


Morris, Janet. A Latin Glossary for Family and Local Historians: Family History Partnership, 2009


Parker, John. Reading Latin Epitaphs: A Handbook for Beginners: University of Exeter Press, 2008


Smith, William & Lockwood, John. Chambers Murray Latin-English Dictionary: Chambers, 2000


Stuart, Denis. Latin for Local and Family Historians: Phillimore, 2006


Westcott, Brooke. Making Sense of Latin Documents for Family and Local Historians: Family History Partnership, 2014


Websites (Online Courses in Genealogy and Family History: Old Handwriting for Family Historians) (Palaeography: Where to start, TNA Guide) (Palaeography A practical online tutorial from TNA) (Reading old documents: Guides to palaeography and Latin) (Paleography - Deciphering Old Handwriting) (Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre: Useful Tips for Reading Old Handwriting) (Online tuition in palaeography) (Online tutorial for medieval and early-modern palaeography) (The Faculty of English University of Cambridge: English Handwriting 1500-1700: An online course as well as other handwriting resources)
(University of St Andrews: ReadMe! A self-correcting tool for reading pre-modern handwriting: Online exercises allowing users to complete transcriptions of various hands)
(Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter: How Do You Pronounce “Ye”?) (Handwriting and language) (Glossary of Obscure Terms) (Guidance on reading Victorian handwriting) (Examples of Letters of the 17th Century Found in Parish Registers) (Reading and Transcribing Parish Registers) (Abbreviations and old forms of Christian names) (Guide to Numbers and Dates) (Alphabetical list of first or forenames with variants, abbreviations and Latin equivalent found in old documents) (FamilySearch Research Wiki: Traditional Nicknames in Old Documents. Alphabetical list of historic personal nicknames and what they represent) (Old Law Hand alphabet) (Authentic historical fonts, typefaces and designs)
Latin Related (The National Archives Tutorial: Latin 1086-1733. Practical online tutorials for beginners and advanced learners)
(Findmypast Guide: Common Latin Words for Genealogical Research) (Latin Names and Abbreviations) (Latin Words) (Latinized Given Names) (British Genealogy: Latin Names & Abbreviations) (Latin Words in old documents) (Reading Numbers and Dates) (Latin in Parish Records) (FamilySearch Research Wiki: Latin Genealogical Word List)
(GenProxy: Simple Latin terms, words and phrases and a translation of Latin Roman numerals dates and months) (Online Latin-English/English-Latin Dictionary) (QuickLatin: A Latin-to-English Translation Assistant) (WORDS: Latin-to-English & English-to-Latin Dictionary, by William Whitaker) (Latin translation tool)