Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Paleography for Everyone! Cracking the Old Hand Writing Code

Old manuscripts can be mystifying. They are often brittle, nearly impossible to read, and honestly, they sometimes smell funny (yeah!) Occasionally my curator will give me a document so challenging, I feel intimidated even taking a crack at it. It’s not always easy to relate to an artifact centuries old, on a foreign topic, or written in script that hardly passes as legible. I mean, how does one look at this and not feel daunted? ~~~~~~~~~~~>

A few years back, I got some excellent advice from an expert transcriptionist. She told me that deciphering and recording old handwriting is not an exact science and that when doing so you had to give yourself permission to forget what modern letters look like and throw spelling out the window! Now this was a game I could get behind!  

So let’s take a closer look at that 1576 document, signed by Queen Elizabeth I.


First things first, what do you notice?

You’ve located her signature, but you’re asking yourself if this is written in English, right?

It is.

YES, Seriously.

If you thought your grandmother’s handwriting took you for a ride, hang onto your hats. Meet English Secretary hand. Used primarily in the 16th through the 18th centuries by chanceries and scribes, Secretary hand is a specialized form of script distinguished by its masterful loops and flourishes. In a later post, we’ll discuss how form and function converge at the quill’s tip, but today we will focus on identifying several letter forms in the Secretary alphabet. Before you know it, you'll be on your way to becoming a paleographer. 


Phew. Not easy, but not impossible, right?

If you thought this was fun, you might enjoy this handy guide to common Secretary hand letter forms. This guide features minuscules (lower case) and majuscules (upper case) examples.

McKerrow, "A Note on Elizabethan Handwriting," 

reprinted in Gaskell, A New Introduction

to Bibliography.



  • The Art of Transcription: A Practical Guide
  • Quills, Paper, and Ink
  • Understanding Regnal Years
  • Preservation 101: How Light and Humidity Impact Paper
  • The Cursive Learning Curve & Future Historians' Dilemma


If you'd like to practice this activity with your friends, you can print the following brochure:


If you are interested in learning more about English Secretary hand, paleography, or transcriptions see the bibliography below. 
University of Cambridge, English handwriting, 1500-1700: an online course:

The National Archives, Palaeography: reading old handwriting 1500-1800, a practical online tutorial

Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection:

Beinecke Library, English Paleography and Osborn Collection images:

*I would like to extend a special thanks to two scholars for making this web series possible; Folger Shakespeare Library manuscript curator and archivist and Rare Book School instructor, Dr. Heather Wolfe, and Morristown NHP transcriptionist and volunteer researcher, Cynthia N. 


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