In the blogpost I recently co-authored with Jenny Delasalle, we gave some pointers to researchers visiting an archive for the first time. This post follows up on that, and is to help those who might be confronting an historical document for the first time.
Imagine the scene. You’re at the archives, your desk and your documents are booked, and you are now happily seated and ready to go. The archivist brings you the requested documents and you eagerly open the charter or letter or register with anticipation. And… you can’t read a word of what looks like one continuous scrawl. You can’t identify one single letter! Now what?
Is it an “m,” n,” or “u”?
Historians have usually had the opportunity to attend at least one seminar in paleography as part of their training. (For those crossing disciplines: paleography is the study of old handwriting. Also spelt: “palaeography” by the British!) Even so, that might have been ages ago, and you may have never needed to ever use those skills in practice. If you anticipate having to do extensive archival research for a new project then visiting a seminar or workshop to refresh those skills may be helpful and give you more confidence when confronted by an unfamiliar scrawl. There are also fun online tutorials to help you with reading historical documents, such as this trio:
- a French paleography site
- Scottish handwriting tuition
- advice from the UK’s National Archives (covers 1500-1800)
In the Middle Ages, parchment, ink, and paint were extremely dear. To save valuable materials, a sophisticated system of abbreviations was developed, some of which are still in use today, such as A.D. for Anno Domini. Other abbreviations may need to be learnt or looked up. There are standard handbooks and dictionaries that you can consult to translate these. For Medieval Latin there’s the renowned “Cappelli” (Adriano Cappelli’s Lexicon Abbreviaturum – most historians of the period own a copy) but I’m certain other disciplines have something similar for working with their historical documents.
Manuscripts written in Gothic minuscule are relatively straightforward to decipher (for example image 1), as are 12th century charters, usually neatly penned with posterity in mind. The handwriting styles encountered in records and letters of later ages, however, can be daunting and vary from century to century, across region, country, and language. (For example, image 2 is a handwritten letter from the late sixteenth century, whilst image 3 is a sample of handwriting from the eighteenth century.) You’ll need to take time to familiarize yourself with the style of the document that you are working on. Of course, that’s another reason to plan enough time in advance for working at that archive!
My advice is, if you get stuck on a letter or word, don’t panic. Make a note in your transcription and keep going. Sooner or later the solution for the correct reading will appear in another word, on another page, or within a different context, and you can then go back and fill in the blanks.
Each discipline will have its own traditions which are specific to its historical material: take a look at what others are doing and see if you can learn from them!
There are a variety of international transcription projects online which invite members of the public to help transcribe historical documents. You can practice on their content, or maybe even learn about how citizen science and crowd-sourced transcription projects work, in case you can follow their lead. Take a look at projects such as: the Smithsonian ; University College London ; the Collaborative Manuscript Transcription ; the Church Records Transcription Project ; or the US National Archives “Transcription Challenge”.
Maybe there is a similar project in your field that you can learn from or maybe even collaborate with? Don’t forget to have a look on Piirus to see if there is anyone with such expertise or related interests already!