Monday 4 August 2014

Reading Old English

In my work as an Online Parish Clerk, as I discussed in a previous post on August 14, 2013, I have pored through hundreds of pages of old parish registers looking for ancestors and transcribing the material for the use of other researchers. My first foray into reading these old documents resulted in not a little confusion and consternation. Over time I was able to develop a passable expertise is reading not just old style English but poor handwriting as well.

One important benefit of my homework was that I learned how to recognize my own family’s surname in very old documents at first glance, such as the 1630 marriage entry for my 8th great-grandparents, in the Plympton St. Mary parish register, and baptism entries for two of their children in the Bishop’s Transcripts for Cornwood parish, the only source available as the Cornwood parish registers themselves had been destroyed in a fire in 1685.
Page in Plympton St. Mary parish marriage register, for April to July 1630: second entry in April – “the 5th daie was married Nicholas Shepherd to Margerit Lee” (insert – blowup of name Shepherd)
Surviving page of Cornwood parish Bishop’s Transcripts for baptisms and marriages in 1638: baptism entry for “William sonne of Nicolas Shepheard bap. the 19 of Feabruary” (insert – blowup of name Shepheard)
When I review some of my early transcribing work now, I see the errors I originally made in reading the documents that resulted from my inexperience in identifying old handwriting. Gradually my library is being corrected. No doubt many other researchers have experienced the frustration of both reading old English as well as trying to sort through published indexes that have been incorrectly done. In those cases there is no option except to try to look at the original documents or copies of them – which, of course, is a good idea anyway.

Recently I have been spending time preparing a presentation to a local genealogical group about the subject and have found innumerable websites where help is available. (I wish that I had seen them a dozen years ago!) I have discovered that the more I search for material about the subject the more resources I find.

There are several organizations that offer online tutorials and courses. Readers of this post may be familiar with some or all of the following:


This commercial subscription site has a Help & Advice section that includes good advice on Understanding Old Handwriting. They have some useful tips for reading old documents.

Brigham Young University

The Department of History and The Center for Family History and Genealogy at BYU has a series of tutorials on Paleography: The Study of Old Handwriting, designed to help in reading old documents of English, German, Dutch, Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese origin. Their lessons will be helpful to “students, researchers, historians, genealogist and indexers.”

Cambridge University

Another online course on English Handwriting 1500-1700 has been organized by Cambridge University. The course is “designed for students and scholars of early modern English letters, history, theology, and philosophy – for anyone whose research will embrace original English manuscript sources in this period.” The 28 lessons in the course are all downloadable.

FamilySearch also has an English Script Tutorial about reading and understanding old English documents. They also list a number of other websites where help can be found for Scottish, German, Dutch, Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese writing.

National Records of Scotland

There is quite an interesting tutorial, Scottish, on palaeography of historical records written in Scotland in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The website is maintained by the National Records of Scotland. The subject matter is very extensive, covering: BMD registers; Burgh records; church court records; legal registers; state and Privy Council papers; tax, customs and excise records; and wills and testaments.

Pharos Teaching & Tutorials Limited

There are also a few commercial, educational enterprises which offer printed guides and/or online courses for analyzing old English handwriting. Pharos has a course titled Old Handwriting for Family Historians. Pharos offers a full range of genealogical courses focused on British and Irish family history.

Rawlinson Center for Anglo-Saxon Studies and Manuscript Research

Recently I found an entire online course called The Electronic Introduction to Old English authored by Peter S. Baker. The 16 chapters plus appendices are fully downloadable or one can follow them online. They cover all aspects of reading and interpreting old English documents. The material was supported by the Richard Rawlinson Center for Anglo-Saxon Studies and Manuscript Research at Western Michigan University.

The National Archives

TNA has a great “practical online tutorial” called Palaeography: Reading Old Handwriting 1500 – 1800. The website offers tips on reading and transcribing documents; dating, numbers, money and measurements. They present copies of many actual documents with which readers may practice. These examples are “of varying levels of difficulty, information about the documents and their historical backgrounds.”

University of Nottingham

If your research goes back a little further than the 16th century, you might find the Introduction to Reading and Understanding Medieval Documents, prepared by the University of Nottingham, of interest. This online unit in their Manuscripts and Special Collections section has information on format, languages, authentication, provenance, handwriting styles and letter forms used in documents from the Middle Ages.

Researchers can also consult Cyndi’s List for a long list of websites concerned with handwriting and script.

I will admit that I have not been through all of the material in all of the websites. What I have generally observed in my brief review of the courses and tutorials, though, is a high quality and comprehensive treatment of the subject. Any of the websites should offer genealogists valuable information on using old English records.

All images reproduced here are used with the kind permission of the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.