How to Read Historical Documents

There's nothing quite like that first moment when you are handed a yellowed, five hundred-year old curl of paper at the record office. You lean over, butterflies in your stomach because of the excitement. That the people you are researching have written, handled and signed it. There is a link between you and them, right in front of you. It's an intimate thing, to have a centuries' old document placed in front of you, scribbled with ancient handwriting. You lean closer, to see what it says. 

Wait. 

All you see are scribbles and curves on the page. 

Photo by Kiwihug on Unsplash


Don't worry. I got you. 

Here are some tips to help you navigate ancient documents. 

1. It might not be written in English. 
Up until the mid-1500s (and even sometimes after then), documents were written in Latin. This includes wills, some registers and town records. Don't panic. You have options. You can either learn Latin, which won't take you too long with an online app like Duolingo. I'm actually doing this right now. Alternatively, you can type what you see into Google Translate, which isn't always accurate - especially as older documents are full of legal-speak and abbreviations - but might give you a feel for what the document contains. Finally, you can ask around your friends and see if any of them know any Latin. I found two of my friends knew Latin and I had no idea! They were happy to help translate a small section of Latin for the promise of a coffee in return. If you're looking for documents from the 1600s onwards, they're more likely to be written in English. 

2. Individual letters can be a problem
C's can look like O's, Fs are often S's and N's very often look like U's. Letters are sometimes doubled up, so you might have two F's at the beginning of a surname, like 'Ffynch'. Have a look at the document and see if you can recognise a word the strange-looking letter is in. You might recognise the word 'curtaynes' (curtains) in a will and you can then match up the 's' for example and use that to help you recognise other words in the document. This is handy if you can generally read the document but there are a few difficult words.  

3. It's all a bit swirly
It depends on the handwriting of the scribe, but you can find that documents have lots of upstrokes and downstrokes in the middle of the document that don't make much sense to us. Just remember that they wrote with a flourish and that letter you're agonising over might be a lower case N with a really long, random tail. 

4. Look for shapes
Sometimes you just need to look for shapes, and you'll start to see words. It's a pretty laborious task to start reading a 3-page will by trying to make out each individual letter as you go. Let your eyes relax and drift across the page and you'll start to make out the words. It gets easier after that. 

5. Transcribe by video
If you have a long document in front of you that you'd like to type out to make it easier to research with, video yourself reading it out and then type it out listening to yourself afterwards. Because writing was often quite squished up (sometimes more towards the end of the will as they tried to fit more amendments and benefactors in) it can be difficult to read and type as you go, and you might keep losing your place. 

6. Read and re-read
I'm currently researching some local sixteenth century documents. The first time I read them I could pick out a few words. The second time I got a feel for the document and picked out a few more words I didn't recognise straight away. The third time I picked up even more. Every time I read a document I pick up more from it. Don't rush it - be prepared to read and re-read, especially if you're new to older-style handwriting. 

Has this helped? I'd love to know what you're currently researching - leave me a note in the comments below!

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