Palaeography: A Digital Toolkit

For the past few months, the UK National Archives (TNA) has made its digital downloads free of charge until more normal operation resumes. Perhaps inevitably, the keen response in genealogical circles (including in popular magazines such as Who Do You Think You Are?) has focused on some of the main sources used in genealogy research – whether that’s military records, wills and probate documents, or poor law records.

Front courtyard of the UK National Archives.
The UK National Archives, Kew, Surrey. Photo: Sophie Kay (2017)

Yes, these are all great for genealogy – but there’s another potential use of the free digital access which I haven’t seen touched upon during the shutdown: training yourself in palaeography – that’s the study of historic styles of handwriting, including the interpretation or deciphering of handwriting in old documents.

This week, the UK National Archives announced its first tentative steps towards a full reopening. Although the free downloads are likely to be with us for a little while longer, I’d advise making the most of them now while you still can…and creating your own Palaeography Toolkit.

I’ll warn you now: this one’s a longer read, so if you prefer to jump ahead, then head to my Top Tips now, go to the beginning of the Toolkit and start transcribing, or get involved with my #ReadThatWriting challenge.

Where to Start?

At time of writing, Discovery, TNA’s online search engine, claims to have over 9 million items available for download. That’s a lot of items to train your palaeography skills on, and right now the internally-digitised ones (those not outsourced to a commercial company such as Ancestry) are completely free to access. Why not download some of these and keep them to hone your deciphering skills, both now and in the future?

To kick things off, I’ve gathered a small selection of documents from TNA’s digital collection, all completely free at time of writing. You will need to sign up for a free TNA Discovery account and abide by their fair use policy: users are limited to 10 free downloads per order, and a maximum of 50 in a 30-day period. I’ve kept my list below short, so you should be able to grab all five of my recommendations in one go if you like.

No matter what your standard, there should be something for you here – ranging from a beautiful early-Victorian hand in the Novice section, through WW1 sanitation reports and 18th century wills, to late-medieval Latin and 16th Century secretary hand in the Advanced group.

Home page of the Discovery search engine from the UK National Archives. Separate fields for entering date ranges and keywords are visible.
Home page of Discovery, the UK National Archives’ online collections search engine.

What to Do

Accessing the digital files is very straightforward.

1.  Create a free user account for Discovery at TNA

2.  Choose your document from the list below and click through the title to access its page on Discovery.

3. Add a PDF of your chosen document(s) to your basket and place the order. If you’re within download limits, it should be free of charge.

4. Completing your order will send a download link to your chosen email address, allowing you to download your PDFs from within your Discovery account.

5. Make use of TNA’s free online tutorials. Distinct from the digital downloads, these reside on TNA’s main site and are always free. The tutorials offer user-friendly introductions to palaeography over the period 1500 – 1800 and to medieval Latin. (I was involved in beta-testing the Latin tutorials back in 2018 and found the interface clear and easy to use).

6. Improve your understanding of the context of the documents you’re looking at by exploring TNA’s informative research guides.

Top Tips

I have a more extensive introduction to palaeography planned for a forthcoming post here on The Parchment Rustler, so I’ll keep things short and sweet for now. What should you bear in mind when you’re trying to read a document in an unfamiliar hand?

This is by no means an exhaustive list – just some useful tips:

  • Context is (almost) everything. If, for instance, you’re working on an inventory of a late medieval household, bear that in mind. Do a little additional reading about the setting to find what kind of words you’d expect to see in the document. This will guide your interpretation. Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words is another useful resource for unpicking the unfamiliar (both Volume 1 and Volume 2 are available on the Internet Archive);
  • Compare letter forms. If you’re stuck on an individual word, try to look at it against the setting of other letter forms in the same document which appear to have been written in the same hand. Might that scrawly letter might be an ‘e’? Compare it with other known ‘e’ letters in other lines and see if it might be a good match;
  • Find out a little about the writing conventions of the style you’re reading. Latin documents and secretary-hand English records often use contractions and suspensions, where letters were missed out to speed up the writing. If you know to expect this, it is less likely to trip you up!
  • Be careful with dates before September 1752. You may need to adjust for dates before this, which use the Julian rather than the Gregorian calendar. There’s a great article about the calendar shift and double dating on TNA’s blog.

So, if you’re looking to improve your speed and skill at interpreting old handwriting from different eras, then (digitally) visit the UK National Archives’ Discovery collection now and get practising using the documents I’ve linked to below! Once you’re finished, scroll to the end for my #ReadThatWriting challenge…

The Toolkit:

Click on the document titles to visit their page on TNA Discovery.

Novice Level

Correspondence between Mr. Power and Mr. Thompson regarding the use in the Bradford Union of police constables from London

Dated 4 Nov 1837; TNA reference: HO 73/52/53

If you’re new to palaeography, this is a great place to start. The hand is so regular that the ink-based script starting on page 4 looks as if it could have come straight from a Victorian copybook.

There is plenty of interesting social history to be found here, as Power describes his concern at involving members of the London police force in matters of the Bradford Union, whilst he undertakes workhouse inspections. Bradford, Manchester, Wakefield – several locations are mentioned in these writings which provide insights into the industrial north during the early Victorian era.

Intermediate Level

Headquarters Branches and Services: Deputy Assistant Director Medical Services (Sanitation)

Dated May-Dec 1916; TNA Reference: WO 95/450/1

This is a sanitation report, taken from the War Diary of the Fourth Army during WW1. The full document comes in at 154 pages: your palaeography challenge is to decipher some of the handwritten script scattered throughout (possibly whilst trying to keep your stomach from churning at all the mentions of dysentery). This might not be a name-rich source, but it does build a detailed picture of certain aspects of military life, and a typewritten page discussing shell shock adds poignancy to the reading. It’s difficult not to have an emotional response when working through this one.

Although this document is written in modern English, the use of pencil and an informal hand can make for awkward reading. It often helps to examine pages within the wider context of the rest of the document: the typewritten pages may help you in working out some of the place names! 

Will of John Wills, Peruke Maker of Pig Street London

Dated 1 Dec 1748; TNA reference: PROB 11/766/161

I must confess to some degree of amusement in choosing a will written by a Mr. Wills. The style of writing here is typical of most of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) English wills from the 18th and early 19th centuries. Watch out for the capital F being written as ‘ff’ and for “spacing filler” penstrokes at the end of some lines.

Time on your hands? Find out more about the occupation of a peruke maker. Are the amounts and other occupations mentioned in John Wills’ will consistent with what you might expect for a man in this line of work? As you’ll see from this document, wills can be rich sources of genealogical information – try drawing a family tree for John and his relatives, based on the information given in the will.

Pages in a mid-18th century hand, taken from a will
Wills: often a rich source of genealogical information, and a wonderful opportunity to practice palaeography skills. Photo: Sophie Kay (2018)

Advanced Level

Will of Robert Harecourte of Ranton Abbey, Staffordshire

Dated 26 June 1588; TNA reference: PROB 11/72/596

I must confess I love working with wills – I think we can often find a great deal out about a person, what they believed and who they liked from their death records! The religious references to “the mercifull goodnes of God” and being a “wretched sinner” are very typical of wills in this period: probate, after all, was an ecclesiastical process at the time.

Time on your hands? Who was the English monarch at the time this document was written? What did Robert wish to be done with “his most vile and wretched carcasse”, and who gets to inherit his buttons?

If you enjoyed this document, then I highly recommend looking at the PROB1 series at TNA, which aggregates 102 Wills of Selected Famous Persons, including Horatio Nelson, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen.

Sentence of Thomas Greenwood of Oxford

Dated 17 February 1597; TNA Reference: PROB 11/89/177

This one is for the classicists amongst you! Many English legal documents were written in Latin until 1733: this document is entirely in Latin and the image quality may also prove tricky.

I’m planning a stand-alone blogpost for later this year which will look at resources for teaching and learning medieval Latin. Until that time though, I’d recommend the Cappelli text “The Elements of Abbreviation in Medieval Latin Palaeography” to delve into the abbreviation flourishes which occasionally crop up in this particular piece (NOTE: this click-through hyperlinks to a download from an external site not associated with The Parchment Rustler, so please use appropriate caution).

Fountains at the front of the UK National Archives
Fountains in the front courtyard of the UK National Archives. Photo: Sophie Kay (2017)

…and a challenge

Once you’ve finished looking at the documents I’ve selected, why not browse Discovery, create your own Digital Palaeography Challenge for others and post it in the comments section below? Perhaps there’s a record class you think I should have included – or which you personally love working with? You can also share your suggestions on Twitter – copy me in as @ScientistSoph and use the hashtag #ReadThatWriting. Have fun!

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