5. Introduction to Paleography

Paleography is the study of ancient writings. It is preferable to take at least a brief introductory course in the subject if you wish to be able to understand old handwritten texts.  Here are some hints for self-educated genealogists.

We distinguish among approximately three types of writing during the time frame that interests us. The years are indicative only: a notary taking up duty in 1590 will not change his style in 1600, and will take into account the writing of his predecessor!  However, there are many exceptions.  Some priests or notaries wrote a good clear hand between 1600 and 1700, while others were illegible before 1600 or after 1700. The years thus indicate epoch rather than a rigid time frame.

Before 1600, the Carolingian writing dominates. It is stylized, and, once one learns to recognize the characters, easier to read. Before 1550, there are many Latin documents.  French became the official language of France only in 1539.

Between 1600 and 1700, there was an increase in the number of scribes and an important decline in the quality of writing, with the rise in number of records produced. This period is thus rich in spidery scrawls, documents written on both sides of the paper (with ink penetrating the paper), sentences without punctuation, etc.

After 1700, quality is back. The documents are easier to read.

In general, a scribe keeps the same style for his documents within a given time period, but the style can change with the years (look at your own writing for examples). Try to find a document from the same author and already paleographed to use as an example. If not, look for other examples from the same time. A course in paleography can be very useful.

The technique of the paleographer involves, on one hand, knowing the sentences that will typically be found on a certain document; on the other hand, identifying first words, then letters, by cutting out a photocopy (or by recopying: never destroy an original).

Keep in mind that it is a lengthy job, even for someone accustomed to it. It is normal to take one day to transcribe one page of an original contract. If you go to the records, it is preferable to have a copy made for you and to work on the record at home rather than at the site of the records.

Moreover, a photocopy damages an original.  The light has a destroying effect.  If you must photocopy, make only one copy, which can then be reproduced; or better still, use a camera and a tripod. Use a microfilm reproducer to obtain large copies at low cost ($0.25 instead of $10). When you have a photocopy, it is possible to scan it and to process it on the computer, for example to isolate lines that are too close, or to eliminate ink that has penetrated the paper.

Example of old text (1610)

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