"...to seek and to find the past, a lineage, a history, a family built on a flesh and bone foundation."

Friday, July 3, 2015

Countdown to 8 July: Palaeography & the art of reading the illegible

An ideal find: perfectly legible entries in a Donabate Parish Register April 1764, Donabate, County Dublin.
Given that Wednesday 8 July — the official launch day for the National Library of Ireland's Parish Registers website — is almost upon us, today I am revisiting a post from 2013 with suggestions for improving your skills so that you might have greater success reading the more difficult register entries you might come across.

In May, eminent Irish genealogist John Grenham beta tested the parish register site and he was mightily impressed by what he saw, calling it 'extraordinary' and declaring it '90 percent squint-free'. However, you might still face challenges when it comes to deciphering the written script of those who created the entries in the original parish registers. That's where a tutorial in palaeography comes in.

What is Palaeography?

Palaeography, translated from the Greek, means 'old writing' (palaiós meaning 'old' and graphein meaning 'to write'). Strictly speaking, it is the study of ancient writing, but also includes the transcription and dating of historical documents, and in some quarters, the whole study of any book or manuscript written by hand.

Historians of all stripes — family historians and professional historians alike— often have to spend time deciphering the handwriting found on documents essential to their work. Thankfully I have studied enough palaeography to get me through documents for my own work, but it is always helpful to engage in further practice, in order to ensure that deciphering skills are at their optimum.

While you might not wish to commit yourself wholly to the study of palaeography, you may find a tutorial in the practice to be quite useful. The National Archives UK offers resources which you may find helpful in improving your ability to read and transcribe historical records.

(Bonus: There is also a handy historical currency converter on this page, as well as a link for help with reading Roman numerals.)

National Archives UK: Palaeography: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/

On this page you will find an excellent tutorial, which begins with an easy to read document and moves through documents of increasing difficulty to help you develop your skills. Also, in the further practice section, there are a number of interesting documents included which date from the 16th to the beginning of the 19th century, including one 17th century report from English State Papers which refers to Oliver Cromwell's banning of Christmas.

National Archives UK also has a page on Latin Palaeography: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/latinpalaeography/

There are a number of tips and tricks included here for deciphering the text and understanding abbreviations. You can even try your hand at transcribing a document with the online transcriber. As you type in the text any incorrectly transcribed words are highlighted in red, so you can instantly see any errors.

Be sure to stop by these pages on NA UK to improve your transcription skills, or to check out some of the fascinating documents they have included.

County Mayo Parish Register on microfilm:
Both the state of the register and some of the script may prove a challenge.

All Rights Reserved.


  1. Jennifer, thanks for the timely reminder and for refreshing this post. I'm so glad to hear John Grenham's "90 percent squint-free" assessment. I did get rather teary-eyed over those microfilms during our visit last fall. I'm looking forward to accessing the new release!

    1. Jacqi, thanks very much for your comments. I was very glad to hear John Grenham's very positive evaluation too, and am very much looking forward to the release as well.


  2. Jenn, I’m definitely going to revisit the tutorials you’ve suggested. I’m so excited about the release of the registers. Thanks for putting that link to Grenham’s article. It’s nice to know extra details. Squint-free works for me and my poor eyes.

    1. Charlotte, thanks very much for your comments. I was pleased to see the extra details provided by John Grenham, and I'm with you on the poor eyes front. Now accessing those records will be done at home where we can bung on the kettle, enjoy a good cuppa tea, and spend hours and days pouring over them.



Comments on this blog are always deeply appreciated; however, in the spirit of true collegiality, I ask that you do not write something you would not say to me in person. Because of spammers, CAPTCHA and comments moderation are in operation.

Any comments that include URLs not connected to the post topic, contain misinformation, or in any way resemble advertising, will be removed. Comments submitted by ‘Unknown’ or ‘Anonymous’ persons will not be published.

Cheers, Jennifer

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...