Reading Medieval Handwriting

reading medieval handwriting
Example of medieval handwriting

Finding very old hand-written documents is one of the highlights in genealogy, but if you can’t read Medieval handwriting, you might be up against a wall.

This means any English writing between the 1500s and 1800s, though the specific styles will vary by era and region. The point is that Medieval handwriting can be very hard to transcribe until you learn some more of the script.

The best way to understand how letters were written during the Medieval period is by examining some properly transcribed examples. There are several websites that have some great photos and examples that can help you out.

And don’t forget that its not just about how letters and words were written, but the terminology and spelling can be a challenge in itself. I have a British will from 1635 and it uses the term “wyffe” in more than one spot, though the person writing includes “wife” as well.

National Archives Palaeography – I found this to be one of the handiest sites for learning to read Medieval handwriting. They have many good examples and even some interactive tutorials where you can practice. There are full alphabet examples as well as suggestions on how numbering and dates were handled in the 1500-1800s.

Transcribing Secretary Hand – Writing from the Tudor period is known as “secretary hand” and it is one of the more common types of writing you will find for genealogy purposes. This site has a full alphabet with script examples of each letter. It is a handy and easy-to-reference chart to have when you are reading your own Medieval documents.

English Handwriting 1500-1700 – This site gives you examples of several different types of script, including secretary, italic and Jacobean. Click on each letter (upper and lower case) to see actual handwriting examples.

Dictionary of Genealogy & Archaic Terms – Like I said already, you also need to know the vocabulary if you want to really understand Medieval documents, not just the handwriting script itself. This dictionary is filled with terms that you might come across in writing from these periods. In my own 1635 will, the terms burgage and messuage were a bit of a puzzle, and now I know that they both refer to forms of land plots.

Other than having these sites and charts handy when reading your documents, I suggest you take your own transcriptions slowly and in a well-lit area. Make notes so that you can better grasp your specific document and the writers’ own style. If you determine that they make their “s” a little different that the norm, jot it down so that you can keep the details fresh in your mind when you come to that character again later on.