WHAT IS PALAEOGRAPHY AND HOW MIGHT YOU LEARN THE SKILL?
Interpreting and transcribing historic handwriting. We at ESA recently had an Inquiry about an early 19th century lottery ephemera find which had handwritten script on the reverse. Current ESA members can read the story written by Susan Faine and Wendi Bradshaw about their sleuthing results, in the December 2021 issue of Ephemera News. Meanwhile, part of their process is worth brief mention here. Wendi Bradshaw advises:
The interpretation, deciphering and transcribing of scripts from old handwritten documents is termed palaeography. While the process may seem daunting to begin with, proficiency in reading these documents is rewarding and relatively easy to learn. There are a few ‘how to’ books available through online bookstores, The National Archives (United Kingdom) offer free palaeography tutorials that are informative and enjoyable.
In their tutorials they present real historical documents beginning with a brief discussion about the ephemera item’s historical context, including an alphabet code for reference. Many pieces of ephemera are included, from bills of payment, wills and testaments, documents detailing property confiscation, even royal letters. Notable y is the facsimile of the letter dated 16th March 1554 from Elizabeth 1 as princess, to her sister Queen Mary 1; and a document identifying Dick Turpin, dated 23rd February 1739.
The challenge is to inspect the document letter by letter, transcribing when certain about its meaning and using [_] bracketing for uncertain letters and words. Each line should be copied to make identification of word and letter placement clear, being faithful to the original spelling. The guides recommend only transcribing when the letter/word is certain; don’t guess, however do keep your mind open to the probable context, as once words are identified they can lead to other word confirmations, especially with person and place names. It’s important to remember that there was no formal, standard for spelling prior the 19th century so it was completely acceptable to spell words in a variety of ways, usually phonetically, taking dialect and accent into account.
Line 1 Lord Vernon [obi^e^t] 18 June 1813 & [___]
Line 2 and [___] the lett[_] [___] to
Line 3 Henry Sedley of Nuttal Temple [?both?]
Line 4 [bid]e Herr to Geo [??]: Ven^t^ables Vernon Lord
Line 5 [Version]* I Baron [Kess/tt_derton]** co. of Chester
Line 6 [c] [e] Br r to Arch Bishop of York
Tutorials include information on reading dates, numbers, money denominations and measurements, and include other tips specific to deciphering abbreviations and obscure writing customs. At the end of each tutorial is the full transcription of the original for comparison. The tutorials may be done completely online, or downloaded to print and keep.
For anyone interested, here’s the link.
In particular, do check this one out: the beautiful, cursive scripted and fascinating sounding, early seventeenth recipe for ‘Minst Pyes’, (yum!! I think…)
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