I have recently been transcribing some old documents – when I say ‘old’, I mean really old: some date to the 1600s. If your research has taken you back to pre-civil registration times, then it is likely you will have come across many and varied church and parish records and possibly also wills, apprenticeship indentures, land records, and so on. These early records are widespread in the UK, Scotland and Ireland, as well as in Europe. The study of old handwriting is called palaeography.
At first glance, the writing can look like a mass of swirls, curls and lines and it can be difficult to make out individual words. Guides to help with transcriptions all stress that practice makes perfect and it is possible to make sense of the most difficult writing.
See how you go with the following extracts from parish registers.
|Baptism of Anna Burkhall 1718 in Latin
|Extract from a marriage register 1737
|An extract from an 1890 will – it gets much easier doesn’t it
The majority of people were illiterate before the late 1800s and so writing was vested in a small proportion of the population, usually the parish priest, law clerks, local gentry and the wealthy who had the time and opportunity to learn to read and write. The ‘professionals’, i.e. law clerks and parish officers, not only developed handwriting styles to suit their needs, but also a wide variety of abbreviations to reduce the time needed to produce a written document. Combine this with the use of Latin in church records until the late 1700s, and you can appreciate the potential problems we may face as we try to decipher and extract meaning from these valuable documents. A number of different handwriting styles developed over the centuries until the letter forms evolved into the ones we use today. See the examples. These early scribes weren’t unique; we know from our own experience (until doctors started to print scripts) that it was almost impossible to read what a doctor had written on a prescription form. I learnt Pitman shorthand in the 1960s and used this widely for my work – I can still write in shorthand, although I have forgotten many of the shortforms and have no speed at all.
Transcription of these documents, however, started me thinking about handwriting rather than typing and whether the increasing use of typewriters, which led to computers and other digital devices is limiting our ability to write legibly and thoughtfully by hand. Also, whether the perceived need for speed in communications is again heightening the use of abbreviations, which may be unintelligible to the uninitiated. Although emails and social media posts have an ongoing life after their initial publication, they are ephemeral in a way that handwritten letters are not. Do you have treasured letters from family members? Remember the love letters I wrote about in my first post – the care with which they were written, and the value placed upon them by the recipient – so much so that they still existed many decades later.
I recently heard an author talking on the radio about the different ways in which he writes his books. He commented that he engaged differently with his story when he wrote it by hand in a notebook than when he typed up his text on a computer. On a computer, it is easy to cut and paste and move text around and so it doesn’t matter if you don’t get things right the first time or write the material in sequence. When you are trying to write a story in a coherent manner from beginning to end, however, then you give more thought to each part of the story. After all, you don’t really want to tear pages out of a beautiful bound notebook. For many, writing by hand is a slower process than typing and can be regarded as a chore.
Some argue that you learn more if you write by hand rather than type. I heard of one woman who wrote her PhD thesis by hand in pencil – at the end of the process she knew her material thoroughly and she felt totally at one with the finished work. If she made a mistake, she would rub it out and rewrite. I make notes of all the meetings, education sessions, conference presentations that I attend. I only write on one side of the page, so that I can make comments on the facing page – it’s my way of engaging with the text and the ideas that are being expressed. I have noticed, however, that my own handwriting has changed (deteriorated?) over the years and legibility depends upon whether I’m quickly scribbling down notes or making a concerted effort at thinking before and during writing.
So, perhaps you could consider writing some parts of your family history by hand in the first instance before committing the words to print. This could be especially useful if you have a difficult story that needs to be recorded, but has to be written sensitively and carefully. Writing by hand and then letting the words sit for a while, could enable you to come up with a considered and thoughtful piece of writing.
Let me know what you think.