Scripts and Scrawls

[Explore Your Archive 2021 (3 of 9): #Handwriting]

By Miriam van der Molen, Archivist, Special Collections & Archives

Historians need to come to terms with different kinds of handwriting when researching. Similarly, archivists have to decipher various styles of writing when cataloguing archival documents. We will show you a variety of styles, from scrawls through tidy-yet-still-not-very-legible texts to pretty handwriting.

Scrawled words

First is a letter from Robert Peel, who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom twice from 1834 to 1846. Yet before that, he had been Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1812 to 1818. The letter you see below, written to Edward Baker Littlehales, Under-secretary to the Military Department, Dublin, is from 18 December 1812. The date already shows the difficulty that handwriting can pose, as it looks like 1822, when in fact the date is 1812 which can be gleaned by the context. This date of receipt was written by Littlehales or his secretary on the arrival of the letter, not by Peel who was sending it.

If you try to read the letter written by Peel beneath the date in the first image below, you will see that it is not the easiest either! The transcription that follows shows that Peel had the habit of running numerous words together into one:

 I have rec[eive]d the draft of the bill relative to the pensions of Kilmainham, butitis [sic – all one word] now too late for us to do anything. The business in this partofthe[sic – all one word] [?Empire][?] but possibly be part through the [?] Laws.

I congratulate you most heartily with accounts from Russia. What a [?] for speculation on the future distances of Europe?

The second image shows the reverse of the letter and the topic under which it was filed after Littlehales received it: even trickier to read than Peel’s writing!

More information on our Littlehales Archives can be found here.

Medieval script

The next example of handwriting is tidier, but also hard to read due to the medieval script used. It is a German legal document from 1371, written on parchment. A previous blog post about it and two other medieval documents is here. The text is lovely and clear, but the letter-forms are so different to how we write the Latin alphabet today, that you need to know how people wrote their letters in the Middle Ages in order to decipher it.

Medieval legal document, 1371.

Gaelic script

The final example of handwriting is from our Peadar Ó Laoghaire archive. This time, we again have a different script for the Latin alphabet, this time the Gaelic one. This lettering was used for writing in the Irish language until about the 1960s. There is a previous blog post on this topic here. Peadar Ó Laoghaire was a priest who was ordained in 1867 after training for the priesthood at St Patrick’s College Maynooth. He was a member of the Gaelic Revival movement. The image in today’s blog post shows a page that is part of a manuscript in which Ó Laoghaire teaches how to read the numbers in Irish and how to apply this knowledge in mathematical problems.

Conus na h-uimhreacha do leiġe as Gaeluinn [How to read the numbers in Irish].

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