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, Spanish Paleopgraphy, etc. (The BNA website 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 specimens of reading old handwriting from the French and Spanish archives.

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.)

Minims in A Simple Example

The first specimen is a very easy one. This is a decipherment of a letter of Antonio de Leyva (7 July 1525) (see another article) in BNE (Biblioteca Nacional de España).

With minimum knowledge (no distinction between "u" and "v", "i" and "j", and, in Spanish, "b" and "v"; "long s"; etc.), modern readers would find little difficulty in reading this, except for a succession of multiple vertical strokes ("minims" (Wikipedia)). Annotations in the image below mainly concern minims.

A French Letter (1593)

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.

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".

Yet Another style

The image below is taken from a decipherment of a letter from Sieur de la Boderie in London to his brother, dated 8 October 1585 from BnF fr.15972, f.10-12.

Another Example

Note the styles of "p" and "x" below. It is from a decipherment of a letter from Odet de Selve, Rome, 21 August 1557 in BnF Dupuy 44, f.51. (Sometimes, "p" is very similar to "x".)

An Example in English

The following is from a letter from Sampson [1524] in Wolsey's copybook in Harley MS 6345, f.37v (see another article). (The letter is printed in State Papers Published Under the Authority of His Majesty's Commission, vi, King Henry VIII, Part V (1849) (Google) p.371.)

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) and BnF fr.7131 (for which see another article).


Personally, I have often encountered symbols of this (above) (esp. I, R, S, B).

In the following, all the characters in the same row are supposed to be variants of one letter of the alphabet. (By the way, these variants were used as cipher symbols. 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" (minus 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).)

Roman numerals used in Spanish ciphers around 1500 (see another article) were used with a convention not mentioned in Wikipedia. Specifically, Roman numerals with a maximum number of "i" are marked with o, presumably for easy recognition: e.g., iiiio; viiio (viiii is not used)). CC and CCC are in ligature. M is written like "IU" and MM is written like "IIU." (I do not know whether these conventions were widely used.)

My Progress

(March 2021) The other day, I found among my records my pour transcription made many years ago. Now, I can more or less read the handwriting without much difficulty. Although it's still hard for me to read old handwriting, I'm gratified of my progress in the last decade or so.

(OLD) Vous escris〓 monseigneur par et sur le *nte de ca*pp escript au Roy did* propos smf* sur au ant hut sur ...
(NEW) Vous verrez monseigneur par ce que le conte de carpy escript au Roy des propos quil eut auant hier avec ...

©2017 S.Tomokiyo
First posted on 29 June 2017. Enlarged on 23-24 September 2017 and on 10 January 2022.
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