by Dr Anne Stobart, herbalist and researcher.
Palaeography is the technical term for the study of ancient and historical handwriting. This blog post aims to give some pointers if you are starting out to decipher early modern English handwriting, and is based on my experience of learning to decode seventeenth-century handwritten recipes. I researched some 8000 recipes for my study of early modern household medicine (Stobart, 2016). About half of them needed transcription from handwriting in household manuscripts (the others were published in medical advice books). The suggestions given here may be helpful for understanding handwriting in manuscripts of the early modern period from 1500–1800, but there is no substitute for actual practice so there are also some links to online tutorials. Note that these suggestions do not cover the separate field of reading medieval manuscripts since, in earlier periods, many recipes are likely to be in Latin or Old English. Here, I focus on those recipes in English language that we can readily recognise today.
Two types of early modern handwriting
In the early modern period there were mainly two styles of handwriting in use, either italic or secretary hand. There were also some forms of shorthand but these are not covered here. The ‘italic’ hand is fairly straightforward to read, being the precursor of modern fonts (and it was more commonly taught to women in this period since the secretary hand was considered difficult). The more formal ‘secretary hand’ came from France in the fourteenth century and was used widely in western Europe for business and legal documents such as wills. Although words may look incomprehensible at first in secretary hand, many letters are readily recognisable once you have deciphered the code. For example ‘c’ in secretary hand usually looks like ‘r’ or ‘t’. Figure 1 shows examples of lower case letters in secretary hand from the National Archives. The National Archives website has useful reference material and tutorials with handwritten documents of variable difficulty. See the National Archives, Palaeography Archive, www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/
Handwritten recipe collections
Culinary and medicinal recipes were widely collected in the early modern period and usually carefully gathered or copied from loose sheets of paper into compilations (Leong, 2013). Many of the recipes that I found in my research were in collections in household archives kept in County Record Offices, sometimes alongside other household papers such as letters and accounts. Sometimes recipes became mixed in with official papers, such as the mince pie recipe from the reign of Charles 1, which was located with within the state papers of Edward Conway, Secretary of State from 1623–1628. This recipe is in a cursive mixed hand and is provided with a transcription. See it at the National Archives, www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/pdf/doc_15.pdf
Spellings and abbreviations
Spelling was not consistent in the early modern period so there can be lots of variations in both secretary and italic hands. However, if a word is sounded out phonetically then it may often be easier to recognise (the Oxford English Dictionary may be helpful as older spellings are given). For instance, in the seventeenth century, Bridget Fortescue recorded on a note of a remedy for a pain in the side that it was ‘The Licker mrs Harvey use[d] to mak[e] for my mother’ (see Figure 2). Although the spelling is not standard, much of the recipe can still be understood. It reads as follows:
“A Litel cammel flowars Litel pelatory of the wall the Leaves a Litel marsh mallow a Littel Angellecow a Litel bame a Litel tamaru a Litel winter savery and a sprick of rosmary a Litel vilat Leves and Lickrus and Anesead and sweat feanel sead boyel it in spring water till the rawnes of the earbes be gon about a cavarter of an hower the arbes must be as near as posebel not over mastur one another but the most of marshas malas and tamaras.” (Stobart, 2016, p.32)
In the secretary hand some abbreviations were widely used. Individual letters or groups of letters were often left out and a bar mark, or straight line, was inserted above a word to indicate that something was missing. Word endings were often contracted too, and some examples are given in the website of the Rediscovering Rycote project, the story of a lost Tudor mansion. See the Rycote project website,
Handwritten recipes often included measures such as a handful or spoonful. See more on this in the previous Herbal History Research Network blog by Christina Stapley at http://www.herbalhistory.org/home/practical-interpretation-of-recipes-1300-1750/. Other abbreviations can be found in medical recipes relating to quantities, such as symbols for apothecary measures in medical writing in the early modern period. These were included in medical prescriptions, and they may have been copied into household recipe collections. The
symbols used for measures of weight included ounces, drams and scruples (Figure 3). One ounce is sixteen drams, each dram is three scruples, and a scruple is made up of twenty grains (a scruple being equivalent to 1.3 g). The symbols used can be seen, with examples, at the Text Creation Partnership,
Often a valued possession, a handwritten recipe book might be passed on to other family members, who would then add further recipes – so there could be different styles of writing in one collection of recipes, reflecting different compilers (Leong, 2013). However, even if a recipe can be transcribed and understood, this does not always mean that it was actually used. Sometimes there are annotations in recipe collections, such as notes in the margins, and these can provide valuable information about whether the recipes were used (Fissell, 2004). Of course, many further questions arise about the nature of recipes, such as how to be sure which plants were meant, whether the remedies worked and so on. I wrote a series of posts with the Recipes Project on the ‘Working of Herbs’ to explore some of these issues. See the Recipes Project blog, https://recipes.hypotheses.org/2406
Deciding on your methodology
Transcribers may have different approaches: for some it is important to stick exactly to the original version of a manuscript while others may be keen to modernise grammar and spelling as far as possible. Keep a note of your transcription approach, especially if you want to tell others of the methodology used. Here is the note on methodology that I wrote for my transcription of early modern household recipes:
“Transcription conventions used here follow a semi-diplomatic transcription. Raised letters are lowered and scribal contractions are silently expanded such as “wch” to “which”. Brevigraphs are silently expanded such as “&” to “and” and fossil “thorn” [ye] to “th”. Illegible letters are shown as [xxx]. Inserted or deleted text is noted as such in square brackets. Letters i/j and u/v are regularised. Capital letters and spelling are otherwise preserved. Underlined text has been preserved. Line layout has not been preserved. Punctuation and explanatory terms are only added where deemed absolutely necessary for understanding of text. In addition, dates are put into day, month, year format though the old year from March to March has been preserved. Accounting records are regularised as pounds, shillings and pence, £ s. d.” (Stobart, 2016, p.205, note 64)
I found the source website of Andrew Zurcher on English Handwriting 1500–1700 very helpful in putting together the above note on methodology. This website is a comprehensive introduction to palaeography and there is an online course which is kept up to date. See the English Handwriting 1500–1700 website at: http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/ceres/ehoc
Other online courses in early modern handwriting
There are other some excellent online courses and tutorials which provide an introduction to palaeography. They also often give links to further sources such as help with medieval writing and introductory Latin. And many county record offices also offer practical sessions on transcribing documents such as wills. Here are three suggestions:
– For a seriously comprehensive website at the Folger Library with lots of links to resources and digitalised manuscripts, see:
– For a step-by-step introduction to letters at the National Records archive in Scotland, and some specific Scottish words that may be encountered, see:
– For more courses, see the listing at the Institute of Historical Research:
Getting more practice in letters and recipes
For practice reading early modern letters, it is worth looking at the examples based on the correspondence of Bess Hardwick (c.1550–1608) which has been edited by Alison Wiggins. See the website for Bess of Hardwick’s letters:
-There are opportunities to join up with others and practise transcribing real recipe books in
various archives around the world. The Recipes Online Collective have run several ‘transcribathons’ with students worldwide (see Figure 4). For more details, see the Early Modern recipes Collective Online:
At the Folger Library in North America you can see the Early Modern Manuscripts Online project of Shakespeare’s world, where you can browse images and transcriptions of manuscripts of the sixteenth century. See https://emmo.folger.edu/browse/.
Suggestions for good practice
(a) Do start off with one of the online tutorials, suggested in this blog – it is surprising how quickly you will improve with practice and get your ‘eye in’. Don’t assume it is too difficult but persist!
(b) Aim to transcribe a reference copy of what you actually see, and keep this original for reference even if you later choose to modernise spelling and punctuation.
(c) Make sure you create a reference of the source for any item you transcribe – it is surprisingly easy to forget how you found a particular manuscript whether online or in an archive.
(d) Don’t skip an impossible-to-read word – just put ‘xxxxx’ and you may later be able to work out what it was.
(e) Do record any unusual arrangements of words, such as words in the margin or crossings out of text.
(f) Identify your methodology so you can be consistent as you go along.
Fissell, M. E., (2004). Making meaning from the margins: the new cultural history of medicine. In: F. Huisman and J. Warner eds. Locating medical history: the stories and their meaning. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 364-389.
Leong, E., (2013). Collecting knowledge for the family: recipes, gender and practical knowledge in the Early Modern English household. Centaurus 55(2), pp. 81-103.
Stobart, A., (2016). Household medicine in seventeenth-century England. London: Bloomsbury Academic.