Horrid handwriting

When was the last time you read a handwritten document?
We are now so familiar with printed text that deciphering handwriting is a skill which is in danger of being lost.

If you intend to use primary sources in your research, you will soon come across handwriting which you may find difficult to read.

The advent of digitization has been a boon for reproducing manuscript material which can be used to begin to learn how to read old documents. When I first started to learn, there were just poor reproductions of manuscripts in books, which of course was better than nothing. The practice from books was essential, and provided some sort of courage, before attempting to decipher the primary source in the record office.

You should be able to find something suitable from the following courses:

The online course on The National Archives website was developed in partnership with the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies at University College, London. It includes an interactive tutorial, further practice (documents from the 16th -18th centuries) and further reading sections and the interactive ducking stool game!

Originally used in seminars in the Centre for English Local History, the University of Leicester offers an online course on medieval and early-modern palaeography.

The University of London’s Institute of Historical Research online training course is called Inscribe.

Fee paying, face to face, course options include:

The London International Palaeography Summer School

and Keele University’s week long summer school – both of which have  already taken place this year.


  • Read slowly and carefully, letter by letter, and don’t assume anything.
  • Abbreviations were often used, for example ‘decd’ for ‘deceased,’
  • Name abbreviations were also common, using the first three or four letters plus the last letter.
  • Spellings weren’t standardised, so you may well come across a variety of forms of the same word or name.
  • If you can’t make a word out, try and read the rest of the sentence and try to work out what it might be.
  • Also find other words in the document that you can read, and use the form of the letters in those words as suggestions for the letters you are unsure about.
  • Patience is a virtue – the saying definitely applies when attempting to decipher difficult, unfamiliar, handwriting.