Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tuesday's Tip: Palaeography: The art of reading the seemingly illegible

An ideal find: Donabate Parish Register April 1764, Donabate, County Dublin.
If you are lucky enough to have a very old hand written document or family letter come into your custody, then you have the proverbial pot of gold, so to speak. Now, if you could only read it, you would be all set. Even if you don't own such a treasure, perhaps it is just that you find it difficult to decipher the handwriting in parish registers or civil registrations. 

Historians of all stripes — family historians and professional historians alike— often have to spend time deciphering the handwriting found on documents essential to their work. Recently I was reminded of this issue in the course of my research for a history project on which I am currently working. Thankfully I have studied enough palaeography to get me through it, but it is always helpful to engage in further practice, just to ensure your skills are at their optimum.

What is palaeography?

Palaeography, translated from the Greek, means 'old writing' (palaiós meaning 'old' and graphein meaning 'to write'). Strictly speaking, it is the study of ancient writing, but also includes the transcription and dating of historical documents, and in some quarters, the whole study of any book or manuscript written by hand.

While you may not wish to commit yourself wholly to the study of palaeography, you may find a tutorial in the practice to be quite useful. The National Archives UK offers resources which you may find helpful in improving your ability to read and transcribe historical records.

(Bonus: There is also a handy currency converter on this page, as well as a link for help with reading Roman numerals.)

On this page you will find an excellent tutorial, which begins with an easy to read document and moves through documents of increasing difficulty to help you develop your skills. Also, in the further practice section, there are a number of interesting documents included, which date from the 16th to the beginning of the 19th century, including one 17th century report from English State Papers which refers to Oliver Cromwell's banning of Christmas.

Just a little historical information on that score:

Cromwell's fundamentalist Puritan views on religious observance and public behaviour prompted the first law banning Christmas. In an effort to rid the country of what he perceived as decadence, Cromwell banned any and all traditions connected to Christmas, including the Christmas feast, carolling, and traditional Christmas decorations such as holly. Soldiers were authorized to use force, if necessary, when they were ordered to confiscate from citizens any food being prepared for a Christmas celebration. Even the use of the word 'Christmas' became a serious offence, since it was viewed as taking Christ's name in vain. Suffice to say Cromwell's banning of Christmas was very unpopular with the people of the kingdom, many of whom secretly ignored the ban. Thankfully, the grinch Cromwell died in September of 1658. With the restoration of King Charles II in 1660, the Puritan regime was removed from power, and Christmas celebrations were once again in vogue.

NA UK also has a page on Latin Palaeographyhttp://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/latinpalaeography/

There are a number of tips and tricks included here for deciphering the text and understanding abbreviations. You can even try your hand at transcribing a document with the online transcriber. As you type in the text any incorrectly transcribed words are highlighted in red, so you can instantly see any errors.

Be sure to stop by these pages on NA UK to improve your transcription skills, or simply to check out some of the fascinating documents they have included.

Parish Register, County Mayo: Both the state of the register and some of the script may prove a challenge.

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Cheers, Jennifer

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