What Does That Say Again?!: More Palaeography Basics, Part 1

Our first post on palaeography generated a lot of interest and discussion (thank you, readers!), so we decided to create another post with even more background, tips, examples, and help for those trying to interpret historical cursive writing from the British Atlantic World.

The Bookkeeper by van Dijk
A scribe sharpens a quill with his pen knife, “The Bookkeeper” by Philip van Dijk.
(Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Some History of Cursive Writing

Early, British cursive, common by the fourteenth century, is termed Anglicana script, but also known as charter hand or court handSecretary hand followed, and was popularized in book production because of its rounder, quicker strokes which facilitated the copying process.  Cursive comes from the root Latin word curo, meaning “run”, as the pen was kept on the paper, thus increasing speed.

During the Early Modern period, most writers could use multiple hands, or styles of writing.  Different hands became associated with branches of the English courts such as Chancery, Exchequer, and King’s Bench.  Iron gall ink or carbon (soot) were the common writing mediums, used in combination with quill pens (most often from goose, swan, and turkey feathers), which necessitated a pen knife for sharpening.  Popular writing surfaces were rag paper—which was problematic because it was uneven, absorbent, and needed to be treated with size made from hooves and skin of animal, and vellum—which was greasy and needed to be used in conjunction with pounce (usually powdered pumice or cuttle-fish bone), all of which were quite expensive.

The Document as a Physical Object

It is important to remember that each document we examine also exists as a physical object, which should be taken into consideration during a document analysis. 

To start thinking about a document as a physical object, ask the questions:

  • Where did the writing surface itself come from?
  • Is this an original or copy?
  • Have there been insertions or excisions of text?
example of bleeding
Physical condition issues affecting the interpretation of handwriting include the above example taken from the Journals of the Nova Scotia Legislative Council of bleeding.  Bleeding occurs when both side of the document were written on, and the ink comes through the page.  Tip:  Look at the slope of writing to help interpret a document with significant bleeding.


example of mold
Documents which have been exposed to damp or stored in a humid location could exhibit mold spots.  This can also be an indicator of the document’s own history. (Journals of the Nova Scotia Legislative Council)


frozen ink
In the Shelburne, Nova Scotia Court of the General Quarter Sessions of the Peace, a writer indicates he is using a pencil, as his ink was frozen.

 General Factors Affecting Writing

Writing differs from writer to writer, but it is important to note that there can be huge variations in style regionally and culturally.  Variety is also demonstrated in speed of writing, i.e. whether the writer was working quickly or slowly. Some immediate and physical and mental factors which can shape writing include:

  • The health of writer and injuries
  • The writer’s care and concentration levels
  • The age of writer
  • Fatigue
  • The mental condition of writer and stress
  • The influence of substances such as drugs and alcohol
  • Writing conditions (e.g. battlefield, in a carriage, temperature)
example of speed
Early nineteenth-century New Brunswick county court record written with speed.

dots and crosses
Misplaced dots and crosses can make letters like lower case i and t harder to identify.  This issue is often indicative of a writer going quickly.

Note: All writing samples featured in this post are drawn from The Loyalist Collection.


Next week:  More Palaeography Basics, Part 2


Leah Grandy holds a PhD in History and works as a Microforms Assistant at the Harriet Irving Library.


SUBJECTS: palaeography, research skills, document analysis, Early Modern, primary source

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