Paleography in Examples: Tips for Reading Old Handwriting

Old handwriting is hard to read for modern readers. Introduction to the art is found in websites such as the one by the British National Archives. (The latter presents ten documents as tutorials, of which document 1 is in "italic" style, which formed the basis of the modern writing, document 2 is in cursive style, documents 3, 4, 5, 7, 9 are in secretary hand, document 8 is a mixture of late secretary hand and italic hand, document 6 is in a legal hand (used in the Exchequer), and document 10 is in Chancery hand.)

The present article presents one specimen of reading old handwriting from the French Archives.

A letter in French to the Duke of Savoy from his ambassador in Paris (13 March 1593) is found in two copies in BnF fr.3983, f.166-167 (see another article). Since one copy is more legible and the portions in cipher can be read once the cipher is known, it allows us to read the tougher handwriting in the other copy.

The images below present the original document annotated with transcriptions. The transcriptions can be toggled on and off by clicking on the image. I have to say I can hardly read this handwriting even with the transcription. Still, I hope this is of some help for students in history who are to begin to read old documents.

First Things You Should Know When Reading Old Handwriting

Here are the first things you should know when reading any old documents.

Some Tips for Old French Handwriting

(More details may be found at Cours de paléographie.)

Specific Notes on the Specimen Below

(Some of the following may be general enough to deserve promotion to the above sections.)

Another Style

The image below is taken from a decipherment of a letter from the Duke of Mayenne to Commander de Diou, 13 May 1593, from BnF fr.3984, f.8.

Lines (1)(2) etc.: "t" looks like "f".

Lines (1)(2) etc.: "e" (somewhat) looks like "=".

Line (2) etc.: "s" at the end of a word looks like "a".

Line (2) etc.: "l" has a horizontal stroke at the bottom.

Line (2) etc.: "c" looks like an angle ("「").

Line (3) etc.: the descender of "y" has a peculiar curve to the right.

Line (4) etc.: "e" looks like "r" in many instances.

Line (4) etc.: "long s" is easy to recognize.

Line (4) etc.: "d" looks like "λ".

Line (5) etc.: "n" (at the beginning of a word) has a descender to the left.

Line (5) etc.: "s" (at the end of a word) has a long descender and may look like "ŋ". Not to be confused with "n".

Line (5) etc.: "-aires" is abbreviated.

Line (5) etc.: "q" looks like "g". Compare it with a real "g" on the same line. (Line (10) has a "q" more familiar to the modern eyes.)

Line (5) etc.: "h" looks like a cursive "g".

Line (6) etc.: "h" may look like "b" or "6". Compare it with "b" on line (8).

Line (8) etc.: "v" has an upward stroke to the left.

Line (10)(8): "ter" looks like "Lv". Similarly, on line (15), "e" in "juger" is no more than a single stroke.

Line (11)(14): "r" looks like "v".

Line (12): "s" at the end of a word can look like a single downward stroke.

Line (12): "n" at the end of a word has a descender to the right and may look like "ŋ". Not to be confused with "s".

Line (15): "g" looks like "y" here.

Line (17): "y" looks like "p" here. Compare it with a real "p" on the same line as well as on lines (16)(19).

Line (18): "x" looks lie a cursive "e".

Handwriting Style Examples for ABC

Handwriting style examples for ABC can be found in ciphers. The following shows the alphabet in various styles used in the ciphers of BnF fr.3995 (for which see another article).


Roman Numerals

Roman numerals (which are frequenty used for dates in old letters) can be tricky. In the following example, "ii" looks like "y"; "iii" looks like "uy" (minums a stroke); "iiii" looks like "uy" or "my".

In the example below as well as others in the same cipher collection, the roman numerals for "80" and above reflect the numerals of the French language: "80" is not written as lxxx but as iiiixx (that is, "quatre-vingt") and "90" as iiiixxx (that is, "quatre-vingt dix"). While "c" for "100" and "cx" for "110" are the same as in the modern convention, "120" is not written as "cxx" but as "vixx" (6*20), "130" is "vixxx", and "140" is "viixx" (7*20).

In the following, "ii" looks like "n"; "iii" looks like "m"; and "iiii" looks like "nn." Moreover, "x" looks like a cursive "e". (Such a style in writing "x" is also seen in the letter in BnF fr.3984, f.7 above. See line (18).)

©2017 S.Tomokiyo
First posted on 29 June 2017. Enlarged on 23-24 September 2017.
Articles on Historical Cryptography
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