Free online palaeography resources

Brodie Waddell

Palaeography – the art of reading old handwriting – is a very specialized skill that will not be any use to 99.9 percent of the population. However, if you want to explore original sources produced before c.1750 for a dissertation, genealogy or local history, it may be essential.

The problem is that the script below was a perfectly normal way to write in the seventeenth century.

For six Minst Pyes of an Indifferent biggnesse (TNA)

‘For six Minst Pyes of an Indifferent biggnesse’ (The National Archives, SP 14/189, folio 7)

 

Luckily, for those of you who would like to learn the basics of reading early modern documents, there are a huge number of helpful resources available, including many that are free and online. They are widely scattered, so this post is an attempt to collect them in a single place.

My one piece of advice is this: the only way to learn palaeography is through practice. There are lots of helpful tricks and techniques mentioned in the resources below, but ultimately it takes at least a few hours of slow, painful transcription before it becomes remotely straightforward.

I would love to hear additional suggestions in the comments.

 

Online resources

 

Offline training

  • The Institute for Historical Research in London offers some in-person courses for reasonable fees.
  • The Institute for English Studies runs the London International Palaeography Summer School which includes both standard early modern palaeography and a variety of specialist courses.
  • The Warburg Institute in London offers a variety of research training and reading groups, sometimes including Latin palaeography.
  • If you are a university student, there is a decent chance there is palaeography training available on campus. Ask your tutor.
  • Many archives, record offices and local history groups offer palaeography training.

 

Books

  • Hilary Marshall, Palaeography for Family and Local Historians (2004) is an excellent handbook, packed with examples, which I found very helpful when starting out and which I still use on occasion
  • B. Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages (1990)
  • E. Boyle, Medieval Latin palaeography: a bibliographical introduction (1984)
  • P. Brown, A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 (1990)
  • P. Brown, The British Library Guide to Writing and Scripts (1998)
  • N. Buat and E. van den Neste, Manuel de paléographie française (2016)
  • G. Cencetti, Paleografia Latina (1978)
  • P. Cherubini and A. Pratesi, Paleografia latina. L’avventura grafica del mondo occidentale (2010)
  • E. Gooder, Latin for Local History, 2nd ed. (1978).
  • C. Johnson and H. Jenkinson, English Court Hand, AD 1066 to 1500 (1915).
  • T. Martin, The record interpreter: a collection of abbreviations, Latin words and names used in English historical manuscripts and records (2nd edn., London, 1910). Free online at archive.org
  • C. Newton, Medieval Local Records: a Reading Aid (1971)
  • J. Roberts, Guide to Scripts used in English Writings up to 1500 (2005)
  • A. Robinson, The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs, and Pictograms (1995)
  • J. Stiennon, Paléographie du Moyen Age (1973)

 

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15 thoughts on “Free online palaeography resources

  1. There is also http://www.scottishhandwriting.com/ – it focuses particularly on researchers working with 16th to 18th century Scottish records and so it includes Scots language examples. But it also has plenty of English and Latin material, so its usefulness isn’t confined to Scottish research. I haven’t used it, but it has some particularly nice looking resources (eg examples of particular letters and numbers).

  2. Thank you for bringing all these resources together! The Mellon Foundation has also a month-long palaeography course in various vernacular languages. The English one, taught by Heather Wolfe from the Folger was extremely useful. I can’t recommend highly enough…

  3. Keele University holds an annual Medieval Latin and Palaeography Summer School which gives instruction in groups varying from absolute beginners to doctoral students and researchers. It’s good fun, too! Details for 2018 will be posted on the Keele website soon.

  4. The Hill Museum and Manuscript Library has an online course in the history of Latin script (https://www.vhmml.org/school) as well as a paleographical album (https://www.vhmml.org/folio). Both those modules, which are part of the vHMML suite (https://www.vhmml.org/) are due for a refresh in the coming year, but they are definitely open for use and the content and images are there. They can be used for self teaching or for a teacher who wants to do a module with a class. Lessons for eastern Christian script traditions are in the works.

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  6. This is wonderful! Thank you so much for this resource. For a contemporary comparison, ask someone who has practice reading physicians’ handwriting. The decoding skills will transfer to old penmanship as well. Once you get knee-deep into paleography you realize the value of a consistent hand, even if it be a tad sloppy or unique. The variable hands are the worst.

  7. This would have been very useful for me ten years ago. My solution then was to find a kindly old soul who could read the damn stuff for me.

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  9. re: medieval Latin and Italian manuscript abbreviations (which carry over into early printed books)

    Your link, “Medieval Abbreviations for deciphering Latin texts,” Abbreviationes (TM) , leads to a web resource that requires payment. It cites and is presumably based on
    the classic paleography guide by Cappell:

    — A. CAPPELLI. DIZIONARIO DI ABBREVIATURE
    LATINI ED ITALIANI. Milano, 1912. LXVIII, 529 p., ill.

    Before paying anything, see if your paleographic needs are met by these free versions of Cappelli.

    A free website at Michigan State University has turned the Italian version of Cappelli into a useful online guide:

    An index to Cappelli is free index at:

    http://www.the-colosseum.net/docs/Cappelli%20-%20Diz%20abbreviazioni%20epigrafiche.pdf

    The English translation of Cappelli:
    — The elements of abbreviation in medieval Latin paleography by Adriano Cappelli. Translated by David Heimann and Richard Kay, Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Libraries, 1982 (University of Kansas Publications. Library Series, 47)

    is available as a free PDF:

    https://kuscholarworks.ku.edu/bitstream/handle/1808/1821/47cappelli.pdf;sequence=3

    The German translation:

    Lexicon abbreviaturarum. Wörterbuch lateinischer und italienscher Abkurzungen, Adriano Cappelli, zweite Auflage Leipzig 1928

    is available free at:

    https://archive.org/details/LexiconAbbreviaturarum

    Karen Reeds
    Princeton Research Forum
    5-17-2018

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