Paleography: The Study of Old Handwriting


Emily Dockery, a specialist in Paleaography, explains what this is how and it is helpful in preserving old documents in this recent interview.

Paleography, in its simplest explanation, is the study of old handwriting.

Emily became interested in Paleography while she was attending classes at Brigham Young University. Her professor, Dr. Amy Harris, was an instructor and department head for the university’s genealogy department. As her coursework progressed, she found a joy and excitement over learning the techniques involved and later applying them to various projects for and the The Folger Shakespeare Library.

As she explains, there are a few different elements of Paleography which relate to the types of scripts or hands which pertain to the era of the handwriting. These elements could involve a ‘court hand’, ‘secretary hand’ or an ‘italic hand’. Italic hand is what people most commonly use today.

There are also various categories of Paleography that a person can specialize in ranging from German, Latin, Medieval and English.

Part of understanding these hands lies in seeing how today’s letters of the alphabet correlate to how letters looked about 300 years ago. For example, an “S”, or a “Double S” as it may have also been called, could look like a cursive “F”.

The process involves the spelling of words used during specific time periods. Spelling was very fluid and often not consistent. Consistency standards in spelling wasn’t created until the early 19th century. We often see spelling inconsistencies in our own genealogy research where an ancestor might have spelled words how they sounded which may be missing silent consonants and vowels.

Emily specializes in English Paleography and has worked on various projects as an intern for the The Folger Shakespeare Library working to digitize letter correspondence, wills, diaries, coat of arms, newsletters and other documents going back to the time of Shakespeare. This was specific to the Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) project funded by a grand from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

In 2011, she volunteered with to help index digitized documents for their searchable database.

Applying Paleography

One of her favorite projects she transcribed using her paleography skills was a set of a letters between a father and son of the Bagot family in England. It’s believed that the father was a prominent member of society and the son was attending school in London.

After transcribing the documents, she realized that the subject of the letters was that the son was having trouble finding housing in London. He had promising housing leads but for one reason or another, they weren’t working out.

In modern times, we can relate to this as children often communicate to their parents the difficulties they face at times when finding housing. However, in modern times, these messages are communicated in a phone, text or email conversation and not documented in a letter.

Tools Used in Paleography

When asked what kinds of tools Emily and the Paleography specialist use, the list is pretty simple.

  1. Pencil
  2. Paper
  3. Tracing paper
  4. Hi-res copier or scanning equipment
  5. Magnifying glass
  6. Zooming tools in various software programs

As more documents are being digitized using modern technology, there are many software tools that are making the analysis and transcription of documents easier.

Special Skills Needed

  1. Knowledge of cursive handwriting
  2. Attention to detail
  3. Perseverance and creativity

Some documents may be easier to transcribe than others because the handwriting might be clearer or words might just be easier to make out by the subject. However, those harder documents might need a little more attention and some creativity in thinking when it comes to trying to transcribe content. Knowledge of cursive is also important. While some schools are considering phasing out this in favor of typing and computer classes, the need is still there to learn cursive.

Industries that Benefit from Paleography

  1. Libraries
  2. Museums
  3. Archive facilities
  4. Historical societies
  5. The US Postal Service*

*The US Postal Service has a need for people who have training and expertise in Paleography. They have an ongoing project through their facility in Utah for undeliverable mail because of illegible handwriting. They have a department (those trained in paleography is a plus) working to decipher handwriting to deliver old letters to their rightful owners or close relatives.

How to Learn More about Paleography

There are many online resources and courses available to learn more about Paleography that Emily would recommend to anyone wanting to learn this skill and become a specialist.

  1. National Archives – A practical online tutorial for reading old handwriting from 1500–1800
  2. University of Cambridge – An online course of English Handwriting 1500-1700
  3. University of Nottingham – Interactive Paleography Exercises

About Emily Dockery 

Emily Dockery recently graduated from Brigham Young University with a Bachelor of Arts in History with an emphasis in the Early Modern period. In addition to her paleography courses in University, she completed a six-week Paleography internship at The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and worked on the library’s Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) project.

Though Emily still practices paleography in her free time, she is currently pursuing a career in politics. She just finished work on a Congressional campaign in Utah and will be moving to D.C. in December.