Handwriting and language

'I remember once being unable to read a word in a will of about 1590. I took the document to the Secretary, who said: 'Try Mr. So-and-So, who is sitting over there'. I took it across to a rather formidable-looking old gentleman sitting at the table. He snatched the will from me, glanced for a second at the word I could not read, [and] snapped 'Flimgot', as if any fool could decipher that.'
Anthony Powell, in the Genealogists' Magazine, September 1991.

Much of this guide has been concerned with records that are available in print, for which legibility should obviously not be a problem. But most genealogists at some time will want to look at the records themselves, whether in the original or on microfilm. Also, large numbers of images of medieval documents are now available online, notable at the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website.

For some documents, vocabulary may also present difficulties, and these get worse as the documents get older - for most Britons and Americans, English itself becomes a foreign language at some point in the 15th century. In itself, this is not too serious a problem, because comparatively few records this old are likely to be written in English - most are in Latin, and a few in French. Further problems arise because - particularly in legal documents - the Latin is often highly abbreviated. This is the reason that early printed editions of medieval records used a special record type to reproduce the notation of the documents. So at worst, the reader has to contend with unfamiliar handwriting, a foreign language and drastic abbreviations.

This can be very discouraging, and is probably enough to discourage many people from even trying. But there are several things to remember:

The lists below include a variety of useful reference material - some online and some printed - for dealing with the problems of handwriting and language.

Links and bibliography for handwriting and language


English vocabulary

The outstanding online resource for late-medieval English vocabulary is:

Another useful online resource is the internet mailing list OLD-ENGLISH-L (Judith Werner), 'for people trying to decipher or interpret old written sources' in English. The emphasis is on queries about English vocabulary in the early modern period (or later).

Another excellent resource for early modern English vocabulary is Ian Lancashire's Lexicons of Early Modern English (University of Toronto), based on 160 dictionaries and similar works from 1480-1702.

This recently published work deals with some 3,400 medieval terms and phrases:

There are also some good online glossaries of medieval terms. (Encyclopedias, dictionaries and some other glossaries are listed on the links page.)

An online introduction to Anglo-Saxon is available:

There is also an online version of An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1898) by Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller:

[Return to list of contents]

English handwriting

As well as discussing archaic vocabulary, Judith Werner's OLD-ENGLISH-L internet mailing list maintains a web page where images of documents can be displayed, if help is needed with difficult words or phrases.

A number of online resources are available:

There are also several useful published works:

[Return to list of contents]

Latin vocabulary

Many online Latin dictionaries are available. Apparently most of the online dictionaries have something of a classical bias, but the following include useful medieval Latin content:

Some professional translation services are also available:

Of course, there are many Latin dictionaries in print. The following apply specifically to the medieval period:

There are also some briefer guides and dictionaries, prepared for family and local historians:

[Return to list of contents]

Latin handwriting

A number of online resources are available:

There are also some useful collections of images of medieval documents online:

A useful published work is:

[Return to list of contents]

French vocabulary

This comprehensive resource is available online:

[Return to list of contents]